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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

Written by

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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  • Kevin Aldrich

    Although I am a Roman Catholic, I would have to say that I think Steve Dillon is correct in most of what he says.

    However, I'd hate to jettison a perfectly good debate, but I think the following post solves the question:


    Miller shows that morality is objective and can be found by right reason reading human nature. God need not be brought into the picture in the same way that he need not be brought into the discovery of the physical laws of nature. Atheists and theists can both recognize the laws of nature and human nature.

    But Miller also shows how the existence of God greatly enlightens and expands the reasons for caring about the moral law and the scope of that law itself.

    If the natural moral law as it can be known by reason is a *set&, it exists within a much larger set, which is the moral law revealed by God.

    • In that case, you must think Steven Dillon should win the debate? It seems as though all he needs to do is show that the set "moral laws that can be known by reason" is not the empty set. If knowledge is taken to be justified true belief, then there are moral laws that are justified by reason.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        I'll give the debate to Miller!

        I don't follow "the empty set". Did you mean "an empty set"?

        • The set that has no elements.

          If there were no moral laws that could be justified by reason, then the set of moral laws that could be justified by reason would be equal to the empty set.

    • Jonathan Brumley

      A true science of morality is about making choices between two acts, and deciding which is better. Steven hasn't shown how one can objectively decide between two acts. He has shown only that we can recognize one aspect of an experience as contributing to happiness or not.

      To make choices between two acts, we have to be able to judge the good and bad in both acts and decide between them.

      Take euthanasia for instance, and the choice between killing a person in pain, or allowing that person to live in pain. One act may involve less temporal agony by choosing death. Another act may involve more temporal agony, but the act will prolong life. But what has higher value? Life, or the absence of pain?

      Take abortion - what has higher value - the life of the child, or preventing the suffering and burden of the mother who carries the child?

      In moral decisions, we choose between goods. Steven, simply by showing that we can recognize one aspect of an experience as good or bad, has not shown how we can objectively make any moral decisions.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Miller deals with this issue as well, Jonathan.

        He makes the point that when we do a purely rational reading of human nature to decide what would be good in any give situation, and we don't do it, it is more in the nature of a blunder as in: "I committed adultery because of the joy I thought it would bring me but I didn't realize how much it would hurt my wife and children and the husband and children of that woman."

        On the other hand, when we see God giving us the human nature we should read and follow in order to attain happiness, we can see the same actions as either good and meritorious or evil and blameworthy.

        • Jonathan Brumley

          It's true we can weigh two actions and choose based on expected consequence which of these situations produces more of one type of good.

          However, avoidance of agony is not the only good that contributes to happiness. At least, Steven has not proven that this is the only good. Moral decisions often/usually involve choosing between more than one good. What is needed to make moral choices is an objective way to compare two different actions and the expected consequences.

          Here is a starting set of goods - life, pleasure, beauty, love, avoidance of pain, children/offspring, truth, knowledge, understanding.

          Is it better to avoid pain or gain some pleasure? Is it better to avoid pain, or live longer? Is it better to love even if I will die doing this? Or should I choose to live longer even if it means losing the opportunity to love?

          In the beatific vision, we will see the greatest goodness in all His aspects at once. But when choosing between temporal goods in this life, we choose between different aspects of goodness.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            I should have mentioned freedom in my list of goods.

            Anybody alive today in the post-Christian West should see the results of giving up on God as a reliable guide when comparing different goods.

            Just look at how our society is permanently divided on abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality. As a society divided on God, we simply can't decide which is the better good in these situations.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Also, add justice to the list.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Have you seen Robert Spitzer's four levels of happiness. He does a nice job of classifying all these goods we chose among.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Thanks! I read the article by Rev. Spitzer.

            Certainly from a Christian worldview, altruism/justice (what the article calls blessedness) is a higher good than "comparative advantage". In the love of others and the giving up of ourselves for others, we actually gain peace and joy, and these goods are not just temporal, but also eternal, because our soul's enjoyment of these goods endures past the death of our body. But the eternal superiority of this good is known only by divine revelation.

            Without such revelation, I don't see how someone can objectively convince anyone else that category 3 is better than category 2, or even that category 2 is better than category 1. An appeal to experience is subjective unless everyone can or would experience the same.

            But we are all unique, and by nature we are attracted most to different aspects of the good. One person may be attracted to sensual pleasure and have no experience or desire for altruism. Another person may be naturally altruistic and be cold to sensual pleasures.

            Some amount of subjectivety is alright in an objective moral system; God created us with freedom so that we can choose between goods. However, when it comes to issues of life and death, freedom, and justice, we need an objective measure to compare these goods with other goods.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            A sufficiently objective measure is reason. That's the basis on which Spitzer builds the system.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Before the fall, Adam and Eve were given the preternatural gift of integrity, so, for them, reason was in harmony with their passions and with God's goodness. But after the fall, grace is necessary for anyone to turn and recognize the good. Otherwise, our distorted passions and distorted reason are unreliable moral guides.

            Veritatis Splendour says this:

            No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil? The answer is only possible thanks to the splendour of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit, as the Psalmist bears witness: "There are many who say: 'O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord' " (Ps 4:6).

            The light of God's face shines in all its beauty on the countenance of Jesus Christ, "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15), the "reflection of God's glory" (Heb 1:3), "full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14). Christ is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man's questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself, as the Second Vatican Council recalls: "In fact,it is only in the mystery of the Word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of man. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of the future man, namely, of Christ the Lord. It is Christ, the last Adam, who fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father's love".

          • robtish

            "Before the fall, Adam and Eve were given the preternatural gift of integrity, so, for them, reason was in harmony with their passions and with God's goodness."

            Then how could they fall?

          • Jonathan Brumley

            They believed a lie.

          • robtish

            Believing a lie that leads them directly disobey God pretty much disproves the idea that "for them, reason was in harmony with their passions and with God's goodness."

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not trying to imply that the preternatural gift of integrity implied perfect harmony with God in every aspect of the intellect. I am stating that Reason and Integrity were intact before the fall, but Adam and Eve did not have perfect knowledge like God. And before the fall, they had no knowledge of evil.

            The serpent took advantage of this imperfect knowledge with a lie which proposed that the happy couple would be "like God" if they obtained the "knowledge of good and evil". He also said they "You will not die"; and he contradicted God, who had told them that they _would_ die as a consequence of eating the fruit.

            Adam and Eve chose to believe the lie; not as a corruption of their integrity, or as a corruption of their reason, but as a very reasonable thing - a free choice between two contradictory statements. Given two contradictory statements, A, and B, choosing B may be arbitrary, but it is not necessarily an error in reason. So, Eve made a "reasonable" choice when she saw that the tree was good for food and would make her wise. But she chose a lie. (And Adam did too).

            The corruption of reason and integrity, the resulting temptation to pride, the action of disobedience, and the consequence of mortality were all consequences of this choice to believe a lie.

          • David Nickol

            I'm not trying to imply that the preternatural gift of integrity implied . . .

            Where in Genesis do we find any statement, or any evidence, or any hint that Adam and Eve had preternatural gifts?

            How may we know anything about humanity's "two parents" when the story of Adam and Eve is in "figurative language." It seems to me the story of Adam and Eve is much like a parable. As I have said before, the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son clearly represents God the Father, but it would be terribly mistaken to conclude that when God rejoices over something, he orders a fatted calf to be killed. That is an action of the person in the parable, ind it is not to be attributed to God.

            There is simply nothing in the Bible that says Adam and Eve were given "preternatural gifts." How can anyone make such assertions in a discussion like this as if they were facts? Adam and Eve are no more real people than the father, the prodigal son, and the brother of the prodigal son, or Frodo and Samwise.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Hi David,

            Yes, I agree that Genesis uses figurative language.

            Here is a link which presents the dogmatic, scriptural and patristic evidence for the preternatural gifts.


            I started out discussing this with Kevin Aldrich, who is Roman Catholic, so I have been basing this discussion on what I assume is an agreed-upon starting point, namely, what the Church teaches.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Jonathan, I agree what you are saying but you seem to be discounting reason. The Church teaches we can know the natural moral law with the light of reason.

            1704 The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection “in seeking and loving what is true and good.”

          • David Nickol

            The Church teaches we can know the natural moral law with the light of reason.

            Are you saying Adam and Eve (assuming the story is telling us something, in figurative language) were capable of using their reason to determine natural law? Look how difficult this debate is for us, many of whom went to college and took some philosophy courses, and all of whom have all the resources of the Internet to consult.

            The Catholic Church teaches that to commit a mortal sin, a person must commit an act that is seriously wrong, must know the act is seriously wrong, and must give full consent to it. If there were two "first humans," how could they have possibly been aware of the magnitude of the act they allegedly committed? Did they know that thousand of years in the future (today) they would have over 7 billion descendants, all of whom would suffer from a distorted human nature and die because they ate a piece of fruit? Has there ever been a punishment for any misdeed that has been so totally out of proportion?

            I think the Jewish reading of the story of Adam and Eve is much more plausible. When you cease being a dependent child and act on your own—which you must inevitably do—life becomes a lot less simple and a lot less easy.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Hi David,

            Lawrence Feingold is a Jewish Catholic (if that makes sense), and he presented an interesting lecture about the preternatural gifts and original sin. Here is a link:


          • Kevin Aldrich

            It is not necessary to know the magnitude of the consequences of a sin. All you have to know is that it is seriously wrong.

            If you knowingly kill an unborn child that you didn't know would have grown up and cured cancer, your ignorance does not excuse the act.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Hi Kevin, good point. But this debate is about whether the moral law can be known _apart_ from God - the same God who can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (CCC 36).

            So let's suppose someone denies the existence of God. Can this man still "understand the order of things established by the Creator"? Can someone who believes in God come to an objective agreement with this man? In other words, is it possible to propose a moral order apart from God?

            I think if we exclude the eternal and perfect good, (the principle and last end of man), then it is impossible to establish a correct order of goods.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The Catechism seems to say the atheist *can* and quotes Cicero in support.

            If the atheist can know the physical order of the universe apart from God why can't he know the moral order? Also, if the atheist cannot know the moral law, how are his bad actions blameworthy?

            This is what Paul says (Romans 2):

            13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are
            righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16* on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

          • Jonathan Brumley


            If, as Cicero says, the true law is "right reason", and if by "right reason", one can come to knowledge of God, how can there exist a "true law" which does not acknowledge God?

            I agree the law can be found by natural reason (with the clarification that it must be "right" reason). Where I disagree is whether there can exist a true law which does not acknowledge God and give Him what is His due. (And what is His due is the love of the whole heart, mind, soul, and strength).

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I agree that if one has a wrong hierarchy of goods one will make many mistakes in seeking the good.

          • robtish

            Jonathan, it worth noting that even those people who united in their belief in God are still divided on abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Christians believe that God is the ultimate arbiter and standard for what is good.

            What divides us is we differ on how we can know God and His goodness. Catholics nominally believe the Magisterium of the Church is a living, definitive, teaching authority and that She infallibly teaches the nature of God and His goodness. Conservative Protestants believe in the inerrancy of scripture and still retain some of the traditional moral teachings of the Church, so there is general agreement among these groups, although you will still find disagreement on many issues - contraception, remarriage after divorce, etc.

            The divide over morality is more extensive the farther we get from the Magisterium. Many Catholics do not in practice believe the teachings of the Magisterium, and many Protestants do not believe scripture is inerrant, nor do they interpret scripture in different ways. Or like the LDS, they believe in a different church. This is the nature of the division.

  • Loreen Lee

    Ah! The agony and the ecstasy! An interesting argument although I was particularly interested in the relationship you made between morality and intuition.
    I'm still with Kant here. I am fond of his saying: The concept without the percept is empty. The percept without the concept is blind. (We can substitute intuition for perception). Firstly, I agree with those philosophers who characterize such propositions as tautologies as being empty of content. But I already have argued somewhere I believe that dynamic concepts (usually distinguished with mathematical ones) are not empty. Moral propositions would I suggest fall within this category, as would I suspect theological statements. (Of course if you don't believe in God you might be disposed to finding them empty!!!!!).
    I am interested in intuition because since yesterday I have been reflecting on the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. I am comfortable in identifying Jesus with Logos and the intelligence (and indeed Kant's Critique of Pure Reason) and God the Father with the Will, and thus Goodness and Love, but I hesitate to associate the Holy Ghost with anything as I am always in reverence/fear/awe lest I trespass on that dictum that says that sins against the Holy Ghost are not forgivable. But if you will forgive me, I shall attempt to pursue this one possible aspect of Spirit.
    Your talk about what I would consider receiving inspiration or something within our perception indeed reminds me of Kant's discussion of beauty. He examines many forms these take, but associates only one, the apprehension of beauty with morality. The others, if I remember, are pragmatic. These include such attributes as pleasurable, attractive, etc. etc. Thus, if you will allow, these as a possible association with pleasure-pain dichotomies, it might be possible for someone to argue that pain/agony, in themselves are not moral, according to Kant's criteria. (And I find it difficult to argue with Kant). He would consider the subjectivity within the perception'/intuition of our agony/joy. Also, although you have made a good argument for the element of necessity within moral statements you have presented, according to Kant there are two criteria. Where is the universality within an individual experience of pain.
    I'm going to help you here sir. (grin grin) Kant makes the distinction between theoretical truths (natural law?) and moral truths. Within the compass of moral truths the intellectual elements of necessity and universality, he holds to be based upon the understanding. Indeed they derive from his a priori truths. But as he also holds that this criteria is applied only within the context of regulative rather than a constitutive order, it is possible that the assessment is limited to the scope of an(y) individual private/personal conscience. But the natural law is held to have universal application. What do we do.
    Kant holds that Goodness 'necessarily' derives not only from our intellectual understanding, but from the power of our 'sapient' judgment. Indeed, in thinking this order, I would like to pursue the argument that the moral law, in contrast to the intellectual law or natural law is based on the Power of the faculty of Judgment, Kant's third critique.
    Thus, if you can prove further that your agony is not characterized better by the criteria of pain/pleasure rather than goodness (which he associates with the aforementioned a priori concepts), then you have your case, for a non-theistic objective morality, as far as the scope of beauty is relevant to the argument.
    But theistically, I think of the powers of the Holy Ghost, specifically of the gifts and fruits which since I have been thinking of this I can indeed associate with Kant's criteria of goodness in relation to beauty. In either case, these are judgments of particulars, in which it is not necessarily true that they have been, or are yet able to be placed within the context of a governing universal.
    Of course, this suggests a good reason why the teleology is included in the third critique. We strive to be open to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to know the will of God. We refer our intuition to our intellect in the process of making our decisions. Are these not the gifts? And then there are the fruits. Are these not the elements of happiness which Aristotle attributed to the individual who has found the guidance to live a virtuous life.
    In a way, I feel we can be 'objective' about all of these attributes, depending upon our capacity to not think so much about, or so highly of our 'Selves'.

    Thanks for the enjoyable article.

    • Loreen Lee

      Correction. Perhaps there is truth in Richard Rorty's position with respect to Cruelty and a consensus/universality can be achieved. For although each experience is a unique individual one, perhaps it is through the association/communion of the many that the universality is indeed found. Thanks.

  • BrianKillian

    I don't think many atheists do believe in objective morality.

    • Andre Boillot

      Could you list other things that you think, without any supporting evidence? I think that would be very interesting.

    • David Nickol

      I don't think many atheists do believe in objective morality.

      I have read a number of comments from teachers on Catholic blogs to the effect that their students object that it is "judgmental" to say things are morally wrong. Ironically, some will claim it is wrong to make moral judgments. Of course, if it is wrong to make moral judgments, it is wrong to make the moral judgment "it is wrong to make moral judgments."

      I imagine myself as a teacher in such a classroom asking to borrow, for demonstration purposes, something such as one of the student's iPhones. Once I get it, I announce I am not going to give it back. Then I invite the student whose iPhone I have to argue that there really is no such thing as right or wrong. Or perhaps I announce that I am going to give all the girls in the class A's and fail all of the boys. What could be the objection?

      I think if put in the right situation, there is almost no one who will seriously argue there is no objective right or wrong. The fact is, I think that theists and atheists alike make moral judgments all the time, and they believe their moral judgments to be right.

      • Matthias Wasser

        One needn't endorse moral realism to engage in moral discourse. One just needs to believe that you and the person you're appealing to share certain moral commitments.

        • David Nickol

          One needn't endorse moral realism to engage in moral discourse.

          It seems to me, though, that if two people don't endorse moral realism, engaging in moral discourse is a pointless exercise, since both parties must acknowledge that neither of them can actually be right if one argues that some action is immoral and the other argues that it isn't. What is moral discourse for those who don't believe in moral realism? One might argue that in a given society and/or at a given time, a certain action was generally considered immoral. But one could not argue that it was (or was not) immoral.

          • Matthias Wasser

            The point of ordinary moral discourse - from as petty as "you can't give me a bad grade!" to as principled as "property is theft!" - is to persuade towards action, not towards assent to metaphysical propositions. And indeed, though moral discourse depends on such social propositions as you mention obtaining - that certain actions are in particular places and times admired or reviled - they are not primarily claims about such social assent (we can after all have different moral impulses than our fellows) but rather reminders (or enforcers) of individual assent to them.

            Consider one mafioso recommending another against a particular course of action on grounds that it violates omerta. Neither mafioso believes that omerta is something metaphysically real. But they do both care about the principles embodied in it.

          • Geena Safire

            [E]ngaging in moral discourse is a pointless exercise, since both parties must acknowledge that neither of them can actually be right

            It may be true that neither of them can be "right." But is not a pointless exercise. It is called 'dialogue' and 'negotiation' and 'influencing' and 'convincing' and 'compromising' and other parts of 'figuring out how to live together while disagreeing.'

            It is helpful that the various sciences are developing reliable databases of information regarding the consequences of certain behaviors or non-behaviors. Certain provable/reliable facts can help at least narrow the range of possible differences in many moral issues.

    • Matthias Wasser

      From the Philpapers survey, a majority of atheist philosophers endorse moral realism. So do a majority of physicalists about minds and a majority of naturalists.

      Perhaps you have some data about non-philosophers?

    • Octavo

      One thing to remember is that a lot of atheists are deconverts, and (in my experience) retain their belief in objective morality for some time.

      ~Jesse Webster

      • josh

        My impression is that when people slip back from atheism to some form of theism, it is often an attempt to reclaim a sense of moral absolutism. Not that there aren't atheists who are perfectly comfortable with atheistic ideas of objective morality, but some don't seem confident in those arguments and can't deal with non-objective ethics, so they fall back into a comforting framework.

    • Depends what you mean by objective. I do on some definitions but not on others. Do I believe the is an ultimate perfect system of morally determining all moral claims that is utterly independent of even the existence of humans? No, but I wouldn't say it is impossible. Do I think we can appeal to universally shared values by which to judge conduct, independent of my own idiosyncratic feelings and viewpoint? yes.

    • It depends on the atheist. Thomas Nagel and the author of this essay, Steven Dillon, believe that there are objective morals.

      • James Hartic

        Does that make him right? Because he wrote the article?

        • No, it doesn't. Articles are not automatically right and questions are not automatically relevant.

  • Steven - Thanks for a thoughtful and careful rebuttal to Joe! You two are really showing the Internet world how to have a civil and intelligent exchange online.

    Your argument reminds me quite a bit of Thomas Nagel's own case for moral realism in "Mind and Cosmos." There he writes that fundamental moral judgments are "just true in their own right. After all, whatever one's philosophical views, so long as there is such a thing as truth there must be some truths that don't have to be grounded in anything else."

    I follow this line of reasoning insofar as it distinguishes moral realism from moral subjectivism. Also, following Aristotle/Aquinas, I do think that moral truths are discoverable by the use of reason. To some extent this involves a bracketing of God's existence. We can discuss the badness and goodness of actions without reference to God, and only to human nature. Catholic philosophers certainly don't tend to embrace divine command theory.

    But my first question involves the living, practical "ought-ness" which constitutes moral reality as much as descriptive "ought-ness." Moral truths - unlike physical or geometrical truths - are not static or neutral, and greatly implicate ourselves and our actions with reference to those truths. There is a practical quality to moral truths that other truths don't have - not only a process of discovery of knowledge, but of living and loving. As Ralph McInerny writes:

    A judgment on a level of generality, about a type of act, is not dependent on the appetitive condition of the judge. On the other hand, the virtuous person's judgment as such depends, as we have seen, on his appetite being perfected by moral virtue. If he were asked for advice, he can give a judgment based, not on generalities, but on his inclination to or connaturality with the good.

    I notice you only use the word "ought" in one paragraph, as an analogy. So my first question to you would be: why ought one pursue what is good and avoid what is bad in practice, even if one knows what is good is good is in its own right, and what is bad is bad in its own right in theory? (If you answer that it's true that we ought to, why ought we adhere to that truth?)

    My other question involves metaphysics. You reference Aquinas and Swinburne. Your argument closely mirrors works by Aristotle and Nagel. But none of these men are metaphysical materialists. In fact, Nagel's argument about moral realism is central to his rejection of the materialist neo-Darwinian evolution account of ourselves and our world. But of course, most of the new atheists - and many commenting atheists here at Strange Notions - are committed materialists. So my second question is: does your argument, if not involving God, involve a non-materialist view of our selves and our world? Why or why not?

    • Steven Dillon

      Thanks for the feedback Matthew!

      To your first question, I'd say it's a fundamental truth that good is to be pursued and badness to be avoided. To say otherwise (or even to question this) is, it seems to me, to remove the normativity that *characterizes* goodness and badness. But, without that normativity, I'm not sure what 'goodness' and 'badness' are.

      To your second question, it does not seem to me that my argument commits one either to a non-matieralist theory of mind, or theory of ethics. As far as I know, non-reductive materialism can accommodate the intuitions my case speaks of, and ethical naturalism will comfortably affirm that the natural properties of agony constitute its inherent 'badness'.

      Do you think my case implies a form of non-materialism?

      • Do you think my case implies a form of non-materialism?

        Yes, I do. As many people have noted here and on Joe's article, one need not be a theist to believe in moral realism (which is a separate question from whether one needs God to ground objective morality, just as both are separate questions from whether one needs to believe in God to be good). In fact, a majority of atheist philosophers are moral realists, most notably Nagel.

        But I think we're on shakier ground when it comes to materialism, especially the eliminative materialism of someone like Dennett (you only mentioned compatibility with the "non-reductive" variety in your comment). I don't think one can be both a committed materialist and a moral realist. Because any suggestion of "ought" beyond what "is" must finally, like God, angels, spirits, will, mind, qualia, form, or whatever, be regarded as meaningless, illusory, or reducible to matter or a correlative brain state. There is no "ought," not even as a foundational principle - the more foundational first principle still is that matter is the real, and the real is matter.

        I notice in your bio you're an advocate of polytheism, which would seem to confirm the rule. It also strikes me as unusual. I'm hoping that somewhere in the comments you'll elaborate on your polytheism and how you came to it, though to be fair it's irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

        • Steven Dillon

          Ah, thanks Matthew. I guess it's unclear to me that non-reductive materialism implies that "oughts" are meaningless, illusory or reducible to matter etc.

          As far as I understand, non-reductive materialism states that every substance is material in composition, but that there are some irreducibly mental properties. Given that moral "oughts" are relationships and not substances, it seems to me that non-reductive materialism can accommodate moral realism.

          With respect to the polytheism thing, I take theism to be the position that at least one god exists and polytheism to be the position that more than one god exists. (While I try and offer a substantive account of what it is for something to be a deity elsewhere, I'm not sure I could pull that off here).

          It seems to me that there are arguments for polytheism that would be really good if theism were true. (My favorite is one from the religious experiences people have claimed to have of deities) But, I've struggled on and off with theism for years. Just when an argument strikes me as satisfactory, I encounter a response from guys like Schellenberg, Oppy or Feser that changes my mind.

          But, I do describe myself as a polytheist because I'm at a point now where I think I've found satisfying reasons to believe in theism, allowing my case for polytheism to springboard. If it's anymore informative, the gods I believe in are pagan deities.

        • Geena Safire

          the eliminative materialism of someone like Dennett

          Actually, eliminative materialism is Patricia Churchland's contribution. Dennett just adopted it.

  • David Nickol

    I think the argument that agony is "bad," and would be "bad" whether or not God exists, is convincing. However, I am not sure that "agony is bad" is a moral statement (or a moral truth). Also, it seems to me that if agony is bad, it ought to be avoided at all costs. I had to follow a course of physical therapy for 8 weeks some years ago for a shoulder injury, and thankfully it did not involve agony. However, I noticed that many people who had knee injuries and as a result could only partially bend their knees had to undergo what clearly was intensely painful treatments in which therapist forcibly bent the patients' legs at the knee until the patient could no longer bear the pain. This was clearly agony by any definition, and yet the therapists inflicted it and the patients showed up for their appointments and voluntarily suffered it—in fact, suffered as much as they were able, and tried to accept the most pain they could. So it seems to me that unlike moral evil, agony is not something to be avoided at all costs.

    • Vasco Gama

      I guess that what is meant is that the moral evil causes pain (or agony), and that is the sense of avoiding moral evil.

      • David Nickol

        Only an act performed by a moral agent (a person) can be moral or immoral. If someone has an affliction—say a brain tumor that causes intense pain—that has nothing to do with morality or immorality. Consequently, saying agony is "bad" is not a moral statement. Suffering agony may very well be "bad," but suffering agony is not in and of itself immoral. And, in fact, inflicting agony is not in and of itself immoral. I think of the scene in Gone With the Wind where they must amputate a soldier's leg to save his life, but they have no anesthetics. Certainly the doctor who performs the amputation is not committing an immoral act.

        • Steven Dillon

          David: Hm, if you're suggesting that a statement is 'moral' only if it concerns actions performed by moral agents, then I think we're just equivocating on the word 'moral'.

          Moreover, I wholeheartedly agree that sensations like agony cannot be right or wrong, but I think that's because only intentional actions can be right or wrong.

          • Latitude89

            Hi Steven, thanks for your contribution! You definitely made me think.

            Can you expand on this comment directed towards David? You imply that David wrongly 'suggests' "that a statement is 'moral' only if it concerns actions performed by moral agents." But then you assert that actions can only be right or wrong based on whether the intentions that drive them are right or wrong.

            So, what is a moral statement or action if it does not involve a moral agent? What is a moral agent if it does not involve intentional actions, or more aptly, considerations of one's own actions? What is the relationship between 'moral' and 'right' and 'wrong', without falling back on the frustratingly comfortable hammock of grammar that all of us thinkers tend to fall into?

          • Steven Dillon

            Thanks for your comment Latitude.

            Let's distinguish between moral values (good, bad) and moral duties (right, wrong). I take 'moral' and 'immoral' to be synonymous with 'right' and 'wrong' in this context. That these are not the same can be seen from the fact that supererogatory actions are good, but not obligatory.

            So, however we understand moral statements, we shouldn't limit them to statements concerning what is moral or immoral, because there are also moral statements concerning what is good or bad.

            Now, consider that something can be good or bad even if it is not the action or effect of a moral agent (i.e. an agent capable of morally significant action): the experience of fulfillment is in and of itself a good thing, and this would be so even if it arose in an agent by a quantum fluctuation.

            Likewise, agony is a bad thing, regardless of whether it was caused by a moral agent.

            So, I think a moral statement is a statement that predicates a moral property of a subject. That seems to avoid the problems of limiting moral statements to those about deliberate actions.

    • Steven Dillon

      David: Thanks for the reply. I take badness to be the most fundamental category of disvalue known to us. It includes moral evils as well as natural evils, for we describe both as 'bad'. It transcends actions, encompassing events, and states of affairs. E.g. "I had a bad day", "This is a bad situation."

      This broad sense of 'badness' strikes me as moral because it seems to involve an inherent normativity: to say that something is bad is to say that there is a reason to avoid it.

      But, this reason needn't be so strong as "avoid at all costs" because that's unique to evil and badness is broader than evil. Or, so it seems to me at least.

      • Luke Meyer

        While we can agree that badness can be described as something that is "not good," it's possible that something that seems "bad" can actually serve a long-term "good." David gave a great example when he mentioned physical therapy which involved agony. While the agony was "bad," it still served a good: increasing the patient's physical well-being. Therefore, a therapist causing agony to a patient is "less bad" than a genuine torturer dishing out agony to a victim.

        The question is, how do we decide when no good can come from a "bad?"

        • Steven Dillon

          What is intrinsically bad can be extrinsically good. Thus, while the sensation of agony is per se bad, it can be good for things, or at least less bad as you say. But, what's important is the sensation of agony itself, unrelated to everything else.

  • Octavo

    "The answer has got to be no: once you grasp what agony is, you understand that it’s bad."

    I understand that agony is highly undesirable. I'm not sure that the term "bad" gives us any additional useful information about agony.

    ~Jesse Webster

    • From Spinoza's Ethics, Book 4, Definitions (Elwes Translation)

      I. By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.

      II. By evil [PBR: or "bad"] I mean that which we certainly know to be a hindrance to us in the attainment of any good.

      I think that nothing but time is gained by saying "bad" over "undesirable". "Bad" is 8 letters shorter. ;)

      • Octavo

        I suppose my problem with using "bad" is that it makes it look like the author has solved the is-ought problem. Using "undesirable" strongly indicates that one has not crossed that gap.

        ~Jesse Webster

        • Geena Safire

          The "is"-"ought" problem isn't.

          First, the problem isn't a pure "is" versus a pure "ought." Our morality is built into us as fundamentally as our hunger. That is, it's an "ought that is" vs "ought that ought" problem -- not a difference in kind but a difference in position on one spectrum.

          Second, Hume's original "is"-"ought" distinction is completely misunderstood. He is criticizing writers who discuss "is" and then jump to "ought" without an adequate bridge. That is, he's not saying you "can't" get an "ought" from an "is." He's saying that the writers he had read so far hadn't done it properly.

          "In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, Volume II, Book III [emphasis added]

          • Octavo

            "Our morality is built into us as fundamentally as our hunger."

            I don't think this is a very useful way to look at morality since we have many conflicting impulses and drives built into us. The ones we call moral, such as compassion, have no special ontological distinction beyond preference. Some prefer to satiate their drives for cruelty, while others prefer to satiate the drive for empathy and kindness.

            That is not not to say that we can't have good reasons for our preferences. The nearly universal (among the animal kingdom) objection to agony is probably a pretty good reason for making the avoidance or prevention of agony the center of an ethical system.

            "The "is"-"ought" problem isn't."

            I disagree. I can describe a lot of "is" statements, such as my preference for kindness and the objective existence of suffering, but I don't know how to transition to oughts without some sort of if-then statement like, "if you hold these preferences against suffering and for kindness, then such and so action will fulfill those preferences." I try to make sure my moral statements remain "is" statements, because I don't think there's any sort of oughtness or duty baked into the cosmos.

            Edit: For a better explanation of what I mean, see the emotivism section at this link: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-cognitivism/#Emo

            ~Jesse Webster

          • Geena Safire

            I don't think there's any sort of oughtness or duty baked into the cosmos.

            Nor do I. But it's baked into me.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Hume is criticizing "every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with." His criticism isn't bad writing or rhetorical hastiness. He doesn't think that you can get to "ought" from "is" claims deduced from reason, as he says explicitly in the paragraph after the one you quoted:

            Thus the course of the argument leads us to conclude, that since vice and virtue are not discoverable merely by reason, or the comparison of ideas, it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion, that we are able to mark the difference betwixt them.

            Instead of reason, he concludes that morally good or virtuous actions are simply the name we give to actions that leave us with a particular sort of self-satisfaction: "To have the sense of virtue, is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character."



            P.S. Curious how Steven Dillon would respond to this, now that I know he's a G.E. Moore fan.

          • Geena Safire

            I didn't say Hume said the transition could be done by reason. I said that Hume said that none of the authors he had read had provided a sufficient bridge.

          • Steven Dillon

            I think Hume has a bad habit of just saying things lol.

            I'd respond by arguing that there's a mental state distinct from belief that we can call an appearance. E.g. I believe these two lines are the same length even though one appears to be longer than the other.

            Then, I'd argue that an appearance that (i) is known through intellection and (ii) arose independent of reasoning processes is an intuition.

            Thus, if it seems to you that nothing is older than itself, you probably have a metaphysical intuition. If it seems to you that 2+2=4, a mathematical intuition and so on.

            Finally, I'd argue that we all have ethical intuitions, such as that saving children from a burning bus is a great good. Since intuition is a faculty of reason (regardless of whether it's accompanied by feelings), Hume has missed the mark.

  • Colin Gormley

    I think the real debate is going to be what is "good' and what is "bad". Both sides may agree that agony is "bad." But both sides will have a fundamental issue defining what that essentially entails. I also dispute that agony is altogether bad, but that requires a theological context beyond the scope of this discussion.

  • Colin Gormley

    Also I do have a question for the author: To my knowledge your presentation holds that we can perceive objective moral truth independent of one's belief in God. But to me the question of the topic at hand is: Does the existence of objective moral truth mean that we must conclude that God exists? Or put another way: Is God a requirement to render the concept of objective moral truth coherent. I assume you would answer in the negative, but I don't see how your article supports the contention.

    And finally, thank you for contributing to the discussion.

    • Steven Dillon

      Hey Colin, thank you for the comments. My argument is primarily that there are some truths so fundamental that they'd hold whether or not God exists and that among these truths are moral ones.

      In the beginning of my case, I did talk about how believe in objective morality needn't depend on belief in God, but I intended that as a minor point: non-theists can reasonably believe in objective morality until it is shown that their arguments actually require God to exist.

      • Colin Gormley

        Thank you for your reply. Perhaps the thing that I see missing is a definition of "good" that renders the discussion coherent (and that doesn't simply kick the ontological can down the road). Theists, at least in the Catholic tradition, hold that the Divine Attributes of God and God are one and the same. Hence any discussion of "good" has implicitly God in the background.

        I think without a definition of "good" that that provides a basis for evaluating agony would be helpful.

        • Steven Dillon

          Ah, I doubt you'll be a fan of my position then! Moral intuitionists tend to follow G.E. Moore in thinking that "good" is basic, incapable of being broken into more comprehensible parts.

          So, I couldn't really define goodness or its contrary 'badness'. But, I think we can recognize them.

          Perhaps my biggest beef with the Thomist definition of goodness is that it just doesn't seem to be moral. Natural law theory, in fact, doesn't strike me as a theory of ethics at all. But, maybe that's too far afield.

          • Colin Gormley

            >So, I couldn't really define goodness or its contrary 'badness'. But, I think we can recognize them.

            And I think the discussion really turns on this issue. To me the fact that we can't really define goodness on its own terms seems to point to something beyond our grasp of it. This plays quite nicely into the Thomist notion of analogous participation in God's Attributes.

            >Perhaps my biggest beef with the Thomist definition of goodness is that it just doesn't seem to be moral.

            And I think this is my biggest problem. Goodness and badness aren't defined, yet Thomist morality isn't really morality, but we haven't defined what is morality because goodness and badness cannot be defined. It seems to me one can define away any system of thought that doesn't match what is arguably a subjective notion of morality.

            But you are right, this is quite afar from the discussion at hand. But I think that the dispute is more fundamental than what is being discussed at the moment.

            Anyway, thanks for your time. Look forward to the rest of the discussion.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer


            Have you read Peter Geach's "Good and Evil"? As far as I know, it was written as a response to G.E. Moore. I'm just curious what you think of the arguments he raises in it.



            P.S. You okay with us corresponding directly with one another in the comments? Or should we wait for the Q&A?

          • Steven Dillon

            Hey Joe, I'm fine with us directly interacting before the Q&A period. While I did read that paper, I don't quite understand some of the distinctions Geach makes. I think I'd need to chew on the article more before I could comment.

  • Matthias Wasser

    Prediction: Joseph's response is that the self-evident badness of agony is not self-evidently binding - or to put it in mainstream jargon, Steve's account is insufficient by virtue of being externalist rather than internalist in terms of the normative force of acting to stop another's agony; it isn't, in Joe's terms, (intrinsically) binding.

    There are two obvious responses to this: 1), that moral realism is (as far as I know) universally accepted as orthogonal to externalism/internalism, 2) that for actually existing humans we are constituted such that the agony of others does matter to us (however Martians might be constituted.)

    To 1) one might further reply that that's great for theory, but what about practice, and to 2) one might reply that that's great for practice, for what about theory, but together they seem like a perfectly good reply.

  • James Hartic

    "But, then it’s no wonder why so many atheists believe in objective morality."

    .....objectivity.... "existing outside of the mind : existing in the real world"

    Of course many atheists are not being "objective" in their view of the world...especially in their views of isms.....some are very prone to judgment in their assessment of what is moral and what is not. They seemto miss the point of moral relativity because of their own ingrained societal/cultural/tribal prejudices.


  • josh

    Although I disagree with Dillon on the existence of objective morality, I think he makes a fair case that if it were somehow true then God would be inessential to it.

    I want to put it another way for the theists here. Heschmeyer tries to argue that only God could make for objective morality. But he wants to identify God with 'the Good'. If this were true then we could make whatever argument Heschmeyer has for moral objectivism purely in terms of 'the Good'. If you had a good argument that 'Good' could be objective then you could make it without reference to God. Someone like Heschmeyer might then want to demonstrate that this objective Good is in fact identical to a god, but the 'God' part wouldn't have been necessary in demonstrating that this Good is objective. Which in general leaves open the position that Good can be objective but not dependent on a God concept.

    • Steven Dillon

      This touches on one of my biggest struggles with the resolution (and claims related to it): If God can just have goodness, then there can just be goodness.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Could we agree, then, that objective morality is dependent upon subsistent Good?

        The question would then just be about the metaphysical implications of that: whether subsistent Good requires subsistent Being, etc.



        • Steven Dillon

          Definitely, I think everything depends on Pure Act, but I don't see how it could be anything but a final cause. Since God would be an efficient cause, I don't think God could be the unmoved mover.

    • Loreen Lee

      Wouldn't that be a version of the Platonic forms which encompass, (as does the Church's teachings) Truth, Beauty, and the highest Goodness. So, yes, Plato was arguing for the Good, (sans God) as the basis of morality long before this particular 'discussion'.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer


      I more or less agree. You can know objective good prior to knowing of the existence of God... just as you can know that things fall without knowing what gravity is.

      But does that prove that things falling occurs independently of gravity? Of course not. It's the difference between ontological and phenomenological priority.



  • joeclark77

    I think the gap in this reasoning is whether "Agony is bad" is a "moral" statement. What does "moral" mean? Doesn't it have something to do with rules that govern human behavior? "Agony is bad" to me seems more akin to saying "negative numbers are less than zero"... a statement that is "self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject", i.e. a tautology, not a moral law.

    • R.P.R.

      Co-sign. I think this misses the question of this debate. What we are debating is whether morality (what one should or should not do) is grounded in God. It would be better to consider whether *causing* agony in another is morally wrong. No?

      • Steven Dillon

        Morality seems to include two sorts of things: Moral values (good, bad) and moral duties (right, wrong). It's a pretty interesting question which comes first, ontologically. But, I think in so far as they're different, we can discuss the relation between morality and God in terms of either moral values or duties.

    • Steven Dillon

      Hm, in so far as badness carries with it a normative reason to behave in certain ways, badness falls under moral value. In so far as my proposition predicates this moral value of something, it is a moral proposition.

      The big question seems to me to be whether badness carries normative implications, but as I said elsewhere, I'm just not sure what badness is if it has no normativity at all.

  • Jun

    It is by "learning" that "good" is derived out of the "Bad". God and "good" are one. Therefore, "Learning from Agony" is essentially grounded upon God.

  • Steven Dillon

    Thanks a lot for all the great questions, critiques and comments guys! I expect Joe and I will inevitably miss some as we move on to more posts each day. I apologize in advance, but thank you for taking the time to dive into this with Joe and I!

  • Julius

    The problem as I see it is that he assumes that agony is bad, but truly gives no objective reason why agony is bad. Why is agony bad? Is discomfort bad? is unpleasantness bad? All of these seem to me to be completely subjective. Agony can only be "bad" if it is a state in which things are not supposed to be. But without a God, there can be no state in which things are supposed to be, as if the Universe had some plan. (For without some conception of God how can there possibly be a plan?) Therefore, though I do not like agony for it is unpleasant, there is nothing objectively wrong with it, as Hume would argue I am making the choice to believe that agony is "bad", as opposed to agony simply existing or agony truly being "bad". I see this author as appealing to an objective standard, but giving no rationale as to why the standard even exists. In my view, he has completely failed to make a compelling case.

  • This guy really knows "how to atheist". jaja!

  • Erick

    To the question of goodness and badness, this is how I would go about it. Start with existence, since this is the brutest, most fundamental fact of human nature (any nature in the universe actually). If existence is in fact our most fundamental nature, then the flourishing of existence is our most fundamental end. Goodness must at its most base definition then be the "means toward the flourishing of our existence". Thoughts?

  • Jack Picknell

    RE: Joe and I believe that morality is objective.

    "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good--except God alone.
    Luke 18:19

    Since morality is ultimately the seeking of goodness (over badness), and Jesus in Luke 18:19 asserts that there is no good to be found except in God, and we are not God, it follows that all human morality must necessarily be subjective.

    Since Joe asserts God is necessary, and God Himself (in the person of Jesus) asserts that a truly objective morality is unassailable by we creatures, the foundation of his position is rendered moot.

    Since Joe's arguments that objective morality requires God is negated by God, rebuttals are inconsequential.

    All that remains, is for Steven to prove that "morality is objective" excluding any reliance upon God.

  • Tim Dacey

    I'll have to read the rest of the debate but I was under the impression that you'd be talking about moral realism, not the problem of evil and suffering(?)

    • Steven Dillon

      Yep, you're under the right impression Tim. I argue that God's existence makes no difference to the truth of moral realism.

      For what it's worth, I more or less share Graham Oppy's sentiments about the prospects of a successful problem of evil against theism:

      "Perhaps it is worth saying at the outset that I do not attach very much importance to the arguments from evil. At best, arguments from evil create problems for the hypothesis that there is a perfect being, that is, a being that is omnipotent, omniscience and perfectly good." - Oppy, Graham. Arguing about Gods. New
      York: Cambridge UP, 2006. p. 259

  • The views of modern society regarding religion, and specifically Christianity, are in a state of great flux. Beliefs that were once sacrosanct are now being called into question. Is the day soon coming when the majority of people in society will view "the Holy Bible" as immoral and evil?

    Imagine if your grade schooler brings home a few books from the school library with these titles:

    1. Giving the Death Sentence to People who eat Forbidden Fruit

    2. Drowning Millions of Children for the Crimes of their Parents

    3. How to Murder First Born Children in their Beds

    4. The Genocidal Annihilation of Evil Foreign Peoples is Justifiable

    You would be horrified that your local school would allow such books in a library for children, wouldn't you? But yet fundamentalist Christians would love to have the Holy Bible in the same library and would not bat an eye at the bloody, barbaric violence and twisted justifications for that violence and immoral behavior contained therein.

    "Oh but that was in another Era of time. It is a mystery why it was necessary for God to do these shocking acts, but we must simply accept by faith that God had good, moral reasons for his actions in the Old Testament."

    Ok...so we will sweep all that barbaric behavior under the rug because Jesus has changed everything. All that bloody violence is no longer necessary because Jesus has ushered in the Era of Grace. We now are to love our neighbor as ourselves...not slaughter him in righteous anger.

    But there is one little problem: Slavery.

    I don't see how putting shackles around the neck, ankles, and wrists of your neighbor and calling him your property is in any way, shape, or form "loving your neighbor as yourself". And I also don't see why a loving, just, Jesus would not have condemned this evil institution, which he did not, nor why the Apostle Paul would condone it, which he very much did.

    Any book that condones slavery is evil and should not be in any school library...nor on your child's nightstand.


  • Leslie Allan

    I found this debate very instructive. Thanks to the moderators for hosting it. I recently
    delivered a talk to the Grace Church of Christ discussion group on the question
    of whether morality depends on God's commands. If you are interested in accessing my talk, I've uploaded the full text of my address here > http://www.RationalRealm.com/philosophy/ethics/morality-objective-without-god.html