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Must Objective Morality be Grounded?


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’d like to thank Joe for his opening statement, and I’ll try to be as fair and as open minded as possible in my response to it.

Allow me to begin by asking the following question: In what sense does Joe say that objective morality depends upon God?

You could, theoretically, say that morality depends upon God in any number of ways. For instance, you might say it causally depends upon God. However, since cause logically precedes effect, if God were the cause of objective morality, he—and all his essential properties including moral perfection—would have to precede objective morality. But, unfortunately, it’s not possible for objectively moral things like moral perfection to precede objective morality.1

Joe seems to argue that the way in which objective morality depends upon God is by being grounded in God.

To avoid lapsing into the causal dependence just refuted, I think we’ll have to understand Joe's claim to be not that morality is objective because of God doing anything, but rather because of God being something.

With that in mind, let’s turn to some general considerations about the arguments that Joe enlists.

Joe’s Arguments

It’s difficult to understand how Joe’s arguments would support the resolution if they were successful. You might say “Well, the basic idea is just that objective morality couldn't be grounded on atheism, while it could (and would) on theism.” But, far from supporting the resolution, this would actually undermine it, because then it wouldn’t be objective morality that depends on God, but grounded objective morality. That is, this would—contrary to the resolution—permit there to be objective morality on atheism, it’d just be ungrounded. Now, perhaps—contrary to what I've suggested—there's something wrong with saying that objective morality is not grounded in or by anything, instead being foundational itself. But, there's no argument for this in Joe's opening statement. So, you might revise: “Okay, but morality could only be grounded on theism.” This suggestion, however, fairs even worse because morality would certainly be grounded on atheism if it was subjective.

Maybe I’ve mischaracterized Joe’s case and it’s simply that morality would be objective on theism, but not on atheism. Unfortunately, if you were to ask why this is so, the only answer that can be found in Joe’s opening statement is that it’s because morality can be grounded on theism but not on atheism. And we’re back to square one. So, I don’t think Joe’s arguments would support the resolution even if they were successful.

But, let’s put the issue of how Joe’s arguments relate to the resolution to one side and see whether any of them are sound. I’ve kept his original headings for clarity.

Argument #1: We Can’t Ground Objective Morality in Anything Other than God

Here, Joe invites us to ask three questions of any given moral theory. “If the answer to any of these three questions is yes, your system is neither objective nor binding.” But, he doesn’t explain why this is so, and I fail to see how it could be. Consider his first question (where X stands for whatever the theory identifies as morally valuable or obligatory):

"1. Could there exist a person who does not want to achieve X?"

The whole reason of calling morality objective is to express the irrelevance of what people think to the moral nature of an action. That is, if morality really is objective, then it doesn’t matter whether anyone wants to achieve X. So, answering yes to this question can hardly mean your theory isn’t objective, quite the opposite!

Moreover, even if Joe’s argument shows that most non-theistic ethical theories fail to account for objective morality, it certainly doesn’t show that all of them do, let alone that every possible non-theistic theory would.

Finally, this argument is posed against non-theistic normative theories of ethics. These are theories which discuss what is good, bad, right and wrong. But, you don't need to hold a normative theory in order to endorse moral objectivism any more than you need to hold a theory of mental causation in order to endorse substance dualism. So, it's hard to see how taking normative theories away from the non-theist should prevent her from maintaining moral objectivism.

Argument #2: We Can Ground Objective Morality in God

It seems to me that this argument is incapable of supporting the resolution. Just consider what Joe could mean when he says we can ground objective morality in God. On the first possible meaning, Joe is saying that if God exists, is goodness and designed things with functions, then objective morality is grounded in God. As a purely conditional statement, this would not affirm that God exists, is goodness or has designed anything with functions. Thus, by itself, it’d offer no support whatsoever for the resolution. It’d merely identify a condition under which the resolution would be supported.

On the second possible meaning, Joe is saying that God does exist, is goodness and has designed things with functions. However, contrary to this possibility, Joe expressly tells us that he does not intend to directly argue for God’s existence. So, this option doesn’t seem viable.

If he did take this latter route though, the atheist would be entitled to reject the resolution on the basis of his arguments against theism.

Now, let me briefly comment on the conception of God that Joe is working with here. This is the Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of God, which I believe commits one to a host of extravagant and unnecessary positions. While I certainly don’t intend to turn this debate into one over this form of classical theism, I want everyone to understand some of what they’d have to buy if they followed Joe in this regard.

On this view, due to the doctrine of analogy, we can never say what God is or is like in a literal sense. He's so radically transcendent that we can only speak about him in analogies and metaphors. But, as philosopher Herman Philipse has noted:

“If no literal description is possible of an entity to which the word ‘God’ allegedly refers, however, since that entity, if it exists, can only be hinted at by irreducible metaphors and analogies, one should conclude that we could never succeed in providing the word ‘God’ with a referent. Indeed, we have no clear idea what kind of entity we are hinting at by using these irreducible metaphors. And if the word ‘God’ lacks a clearly defined referential use, the sentence ‘God exists’ cannot express a meaningful existential hypothesis.”2

This problem extends to every sentence predicating something of God, such as that God is goodness.

Imagine if I told you that Adfs is goodness. You ask what Adfs is. I say she's sort of like people. You ask how so. I say she has something sort of like a mind. You ponder what I mean and ask if I mean she’s a computer. I say no. Puzzled, you ask what she has that's sort of like a mind. But, I can’t tell you. I can only give more analogies. Eventually I think you'd just conclude that I don't really know what I'm talking about.

Without being able to say anything literal about God, it's hard to make any sense of the resolution because we have no idea what objective morality is being said to depend upon.

Argument #3: Why Theistic Morality Succeeds, and Non-Theistic Morality Fails

Here Joe argues that because moral obligations require binding ends, and such ends cannot be arbitrary or self-imposed, a higher source must give them and this is God. But, a number of problems rear their heads here, including self-contradiction.

Earlier Joe said: "If morality is objective, then it is binding upon everyone, even the most powerful." This entails that if God exists, then God has moral obligations. But, who gives God’s duties their binding ends? According to Joe they could not have been self-imposed or arbitrary and there’d be no higher power than God. So, Joe's claims are internally inconsistent. Either morality is not binding on everyone no matter how powerful, or some moral obligations have binding ends that are arbitrary or self-imposed. Either way, something has to give.


As they stand, Joe's arguments are unsound for several reasons (some of which I was unable to go over). But, the most important point is that they would not support the resolution if they were sound. So, it seems whatever repairs we make to them, they'd have to be fundamentally revised to support the resolution. This difficulty may amount to nothing however if Joe is able to raise comparable issues with my argument. But, and I suppose this bias is to be expected, I don't foresee this happening.

I proposed the following proposition as a counter-example to the resolution: "Agony is intrinsically bad." To say that agony is intrinsically bad is just to say that agony is bad, and that it is due to the essence of agony that it is so.

Because agony is intrinsically bad, it is impossible for agony to not be bad. That is, the counter-example is necessarily true, which entails the objectivity of morality.

Moreover, the badness of agony could not be due to anything other than the essence of agony lest it not be intrinsic. This entails that the counter-example isn't grounded by any deeper necessary truths: it's fundamental.

However, this proposition could still depend on God if either badness or agony were constituted by God. But, God's nature is neither identical with nor does it include badness or agony.

So, neither this proposition nor the objective morality it describes depend on God.

But, let's see what Joe has to say.

Thanks for reading!
(Image credit: Science Daily)


  1. This argument constitutes a sort of philosophical demolition of the following line of reasoning: Without God, there'd be no moral law giver. Without a moral law giver, there'd be no moral laws. Without moral laws, there'd be no objective morality. Thus, without God, there'd be no objective morality.

    Since objective morality cannot causally depend on God, it cannot depend on God giving any moral laws.

  2. Philipse, Herman. God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. p. 97
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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