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Why Objective Morality Does Not Depend on God

Objective Morality

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

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

Today we conclude the series with a closing statement from Steven. 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 participating in it. Debating a Thomist has been refreshing.

Now as I’ve indicated throughout this debate, the resolution is vulnerable to numerous interpretations. But, it has a particularly interesting meaning when uttered by someone of a Thomist persuasion, such as Joe.

As Ed Feser explains:

“[I]t isn’t atheism per se that threatens the very possibility of morality, at least not directly. Rather, what threatens it is the mechanistic or anti-teleological (and thus anti-Aristotelian) conception of the natural world that modern atheists are generally committed to…”

Objective morality depends on God, for the Thomist, in so far as its underwriting teleology does. But, Aristotle took teleology to be fundamental, thus permitting objective morality to exist independent of God. In a lot of ways, I’ve defended the Aristotelian view in this debate. I’ve argued that morality is ultimately foundational, negating the need for it to depend upon something further. And I resisted Joe’s argument that the teleology of moral duties requires God by showing the argument to be internally inconsistent. Of course, my arguments don’t commit anyone to endorsing Aristotelian metaphysics (though, I’d encourage people to do so), but they’ll play an important role in this closing statement as you’ll soon see.

Let’s review and evaluate the debate so far.

Joe’s Case

Joe’s general strategy for defending the resolution was to argue that objective morality could only be grounded in God, and he presented three arguments to that end. First he argued that normative theories which do not appeal to God are unable to ground objective morality. Second he argued that if God existed and was goodness, then objective morality would be grounded in God. Finally, he argued that objective moral duties required something that only God could deliver: universally binding ends.

In response, I noted that Joe’s general strategy was incapable of evincing the resolution. We could grant everything he said and it would only show that objective morality would be ungrounded in God’s absence. But, an ungrounded objective morality is still objective morality. Furthermore, each of his arguments seemed burdened with problems. For example, his first argument involved a series of questions which do not—contrary to their purpose—indicate whether a normative theory is objective, and as stated above his last involved a set of self-defeating claims.

We did not really interact over these points in the Question and Answer period, so I don’t have much to add here. Perhaps the resolution is true, but it does not seem to me that Joe’s arguments are able to show that it is. However, this could ultimately mean nothing for the purposes of this debate unless my case fared better.

My Case

My general strategy was to argue that objective morality does not depend upon God because some moral propositions belong to the class of propositions that would be true regardless of whether or not God exists. Other members of this class include the laws of logic and mathematical truths. I employed one argument to this end. I argued that the proposition ‘Agony is intrinsically bad’ featured the properties that characterize members of the class of ‘God-independent’ propositions. Namely, I argued that it was necessarily true, fundamental, and did not involve God.

I expected Joe to respond by arguing that there is no evil without goodness and no goodness without God. But, he instead took issue with the truth of the proposition. In his rebuttal, Joe argued that however we understand the ‘badness’ of agony, it won’t allow my proposition to qualify in the class I need it to. Either ‘badness’ just emphasizes the pain of agony—in which case, this isn’t even a moral proposition—or, ‘badness’ refers to moral evil, in which case counter-examples abound wherein agony is either not morally evil, or at least sensibly described as such.

But, ‘badness’ doesn’t just emphasize the pain of agony nor is it just a moral evil. In fact, moral evil is a proper subset of badness. Badness is an enormous category that we all recognize on a daily basis, which is why I’ve been stubborn in explicating this: it seems far too close to experience to need analysis. To illustrate its breadth, badness also includes natural evils. Thus, we tend to think that it’s ‘bad’ when hundreds of children drown after a natural event occurs such as a tsunami striking a village. Badness even transcends actions. We say “I had a bad day”, and “This is just a bad situation.” It is the most fundamental disvalue known to us. So, as we can see, Joe’s counter-examples are not successful. Agony is intrinsically bad, even though it’s not intrinsically morally evil. Note, in using such a broad notion of badness, my proposition is still moral as it concerns evaluative facts that relate to what we should and should not do.

How else did Joe respond to my case? Well, consider the following quotation:

“[Positing ultimately foundational moral truths] is not an answer. It’s a shrug of the shoulders and a “Just because.”

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

Those of us who do not believe in God will simply disagree: Christians have not shown that God exists. I’d add that they especially have not done this through Aquinas’ Third Way. If it is sound, it only shows that there is an imperishable substance. We’d definitely need additional argumentation to reasonably infer that this substance is anything like God. Joe may believe it’s a short step from the Third Way to God, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve been given reason to share that sentiment.

Now, because Joe has given an argument for God’s existence, I feel it is permissible for me to respond. In fairness to Joe, I won’t argue in any greater length against the Third Way than his linked video argued for it. You can find my response in footnote.1 I’ve included it there so as not to interrupt the flow here.

In the above quotation Joe indicates that it’s a cop out to say some moral facts are so foundational they’re in no need of being grounded in or by anything. But, I pointed out that this is self-defeating because on his view, the moral fact that there is goodness cannot be grounded in or by anything, since God is goodness and nothing grounds God.

He replied in his Answers section that goodness is—contrary to my suggestion—grounded in God. But, surely this can’t be right. If God is goodness, then to say that goodness is grounded in God is to say that God is grounded in God. If his view commits one to the position that God grounds himself in himself, my view can hardly be regarded as inferior!

So, Joe is suggesting that theists have good reasons to believe in ultimately foundational morality because they’ve got good arguments that God exists (e.g. Aquinas’ Third Way) and is goodness, whereas non-theists lack comparable reasons for endorsing this moral position.

But, what are these arguments for the conclusion that God is goodness? Joe linked us to a video on the Third Way, but up to this point he’d only said that God would be goodness. So, I asked him to provide such an argument. At least this way the readers could decide for themselves whether or not Joe is justified in suggesting that theists are more reasonable than non-theists in endorsing ultimately foundational morality. But, Joe responded by protesting that providing such an argument wasn’t necessary to establish the resolution. However, in so far as he needs to show that God would be goodness in order to show that morality would be grounded in God, he does.

In response, Joe gave us two Fourth Wayish kind of arguments. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether these are logically valid and factually correct. I’ve responded to them in [1]: in so far as Aquinas’ Fourth Way implies that Pure Act efficiently causes2, it’s unsound.

The only other issues Joe raised that I’m aware of are about Moral Intuitionism. But, they seem more to do with its practicality than truth, so I’ll set them aside for the time being.


I hope that at the very least I’ve managed to show that non-theists can reasonably resist the resolution. But, my case strikes me as stronger than that. What do you think?

Thanks for reading!
(Image credit: Fine Art America)


  1. Let’s begin by distinguishing between final and efficient causes.

    Efficient cause = that which by its action makes something to be, or come into being, either in whole or in part.”

    Final cause = that for the sake of which something is made or done. It is the goal, purpose, or end-tended-towards of the efficient cause itself, residing within it and guiding its action.” – Clarke, W. Norris. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2001. p. 210

    “The efficient cause answers the question: Which being is responsible for this effect’s coming to be? The final cause answers the question: Why did this efficient cause produce this effect rather than that?” Ibid. p. 202

    Clarke argues that “every efficient cause needs a final cause to determine its action to produce this effect rather than that” because “If the efficient cause at the moment of its productive action is not interiorly determined or focused toward producing this effect rather than that, then there is no sufficient reason why it should produce this one rather than that.” Ibid. pp. 200-1

    Now while Aristotle only thought the unmoved mover/pure actuality was a final cause, Aquinas also thought it was an efficient cause. But, Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics make it extremely difficult to say that the Pure Act is an efficient cause.

    As Ed Feser says:

    “…final causes are prior to or more fundamental than efficient causes, insofar as they make efficient causes intelligible. Indeed, for Aquinas the final cause is “the cause of causes”, that which determines all of the other causes.” Feser, Edward. Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009. p. 18

    “[I]n Aquinas’s view an efficient cause can bring an effect into being only if it is “directed towards” that effect and it is ultimately in that sense that the effect is “contained in” the efficient cause.” Ibid. p. 23

    But, then it seems that the unmoved mover cannot be an efficient cause because what is Pure Act can have no passive potency and an efficient cause will have passive potency in as much as it is affected by a final cause.

    Moreover, due to its Divine Simplicity, Pure Act’s final and efficient causation would have to refer to the same thing: Pure Act. But, final cause logically precedes efficient cause. Therefore, the Pure Act would have to logically precede itself! Hence, Pure Act cannot efficiently cause anything.

    In so far as Aquinas’ 5 Ways have the Pure Act being an efficient cause, I think they’re unsound. It seems that adopting Aristotle’s metaphysics (as is eminently reasonable to do) should lead one away from Christianity, not towards it. But, perhaps that’s for another debate.

  2. Feser says of the manner in which imperfect things participate in God’s goodness in Aquinas’ 4th Way: “Unlike Plato, whose emphasis is exclusively on what later thinkers would call formal causality, Aquinas takes there to be an essential link between participating in something and being efficiently caused by it.” Ibid. p. 108
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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  • Loreen Lee

    Thank you for a very impressive argument. I will actually have to return to it several times to understand it better, but I would like to make a few notes.

    My understanding is that there is an identification between Aristotle formal and final cause. I say this because it is in conformity with the relationship of teleology to intelligence, the third and first critiques as the prerequisites within practical reason, to the development of goodness of the will. I believe, although you note the primacy of teleology within Aristotle, that his proofs of God's existence do not discount 'intelligence'.

    The second concerns my musing that your emphasis on agony has counterparts within the Buddhist tradition. Samara is indeed identified with suffering produced or characteristic of ignorance. Indeed we live, according to Buddhism, within a conventional truth that is contrasted with 'nirvana' the 'consciousness/awareness' of ultimate truth. Do Google Buddhism if this subject is new to you. I'm not very good with the computer, and thus do not provide a 'link'.

    In Theravada Buddhism there can be no divine salvation or forgiveness for one's karma, since it is a purely impersonal process that is a part
    of the makeup of the universe. .....(on different texts)....The Japanese Pure Land teacher Genshin taught that Amida Buddha has the power to destroy the karma that would otherwise bind one in saṃsāra.[25][26

    The major difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that (I believe anyway) in Buddhism suffering is something that we aspire to 'leave', and that the universe is inherently one of suffering and agony. In contrast, with Christianity, besides God pronouncing the 'cosmos' good, we have the idea of transformation of consciousness/the world, mind and matter, even to the point of a new heaven-mind, and new earth-matter within a 'final resurrection'.

    Thus I am surprised that the emphasis on agony has not been identified as heretical (I always get the heresies mixed up- help me here someone). But despite this it does establish well from argument, that suffering is indeed bad, and even within a moral context (of ignorance/sin/etc.) 'evil', although I should like to qualify this statement. Indeed, the agony of Satan is identified with a self-absorption and exclusion of the 'Other'/'other', which is a very interesting premise as I associate more readily with the psychological characteristics of agony rather than the physical. Within scripture I note, the acceptance by God of suffering is what I believe is represented by the atonement of Jesus; which demonstrates that such suffering can be regarded as having purpose

    Apart from these Christian perspectives, as I think over your arguments I find further reasons to extend the scope of what is considered 'morality'. Thanks again for your arguments, and your reply to some comments. (I try!!)

    • Steven Dillon

      Thanks a lot Loreen for your insights, I've enjoyed your unique perspective and emphasis on Kant. Unfortunately, I don't know very much about Buddhism but would love to learn! There seem to be some really good books on the subject.

  • Luke Meyer

    I enjoyed following the course of this discussion; it had a delightful semblance to a conversation I had just finished with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. There are a few points, however, I would like to make:

    1) I was in complete agreement with this final article of until it was suggested that badness transcends action. Is the idea of a mosquito a bad one? Surely, they serve no human good and even inflict some "bads", but they contribute to a food chain. I am loath to beat the Dead Horse of agony, but someone experiencing intense pain may find good in it (an athlete "feeling the burn", a masochist, etc). Now, we can say that rape, for example, is a bad thing because it is an intended action. Something without will cannot act in a "bad" way. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we may find one tree to give more shade than another, but we cannot in seriousness really call the other tree bad.

    2) It was also mentioned that morality cannot be based on God because God cannot be grounded upon God. I contend that God may certainly be grounded in God in the idea of the Holy Trinity.

    3) Finally (and most subjectively), I'm still not sure what your "good" is based upon. Is good goodness in and of itself? If so, how is this a stronger argument than goodness being based in God who is based in God?

    • Steven Dillon

      Thanks for following the discussion and contributing Luke!

      In regards to your first point, when I said that badness transcends actions I guess I just meant that actions are not the only things that can be bad. For example, agony is not an action, it's a sensation. Yet, it's a bad thing.

      With respect to your second point, it seems to me that if God *is* goodness, then goodness can't be grounded in God. For then, God would be grounded in God. But, what if God is a trinity of persons? Would goodness be one of the persons? Two of them? All of them? Or perhaps just the nature that they share? Whatever we say, it seems to me the same problem arises: since nothing can be the ground of itself, no person of the Trinity nor the nature they'd share could be its own ground.

      Finally, it doesn't seem that we can ground goodness because there's nothing more fundamental that's up to the task. My approach differs from what I take Joe's to be in at least that mine involves no circularity where as it is deeply circular to say God is the ground of himself.

      • Jun

        "If God *is* goodness, then goodness can't be grounded in God"
        -'God is goodness' doesn't necessarily mean goodness is God- a mathematical equality. I may mean goodness inherent of God,
        thus, goodness transcends from God. Hence, (all) goodness- including objective moral truths, can be grounded in God( from a theist perspective). It does not only rest(end) itself being foundational or fundamental even within a scope of an "embedded' moral strata, since human reason(being good) assists and demands 'us' to search the "whys" behind the core of this universal moral truth...and end up pointing to the Ultimate Cause.
        -I think this, for me(Its totality) is foundational.
        -my insight, my thanks:))

  • Tim Dacey

    Some thoughts Steven:

    At some points, it looks like you are mixing metaphysical questions with epistemological ones. It looks like you are arguing that we can have *moral knowledge* independent of God (in which case I don't necessarily disagree), but you never talk about moral properties. What do you consider are the status of moral properties? For example, if you're a moral naturalist, then you might think goodness is identical to a natural property. It does look like you try to make a meta-ethical claim when you say that 'it is necessarily true that agony is intrinsically evil', just like it is necessarily true the triangles have three sides. That claim, however, is most certainly false. That 'agony is intrinsically evil' is an empirical claim, and a continent truth. Can there be no possible world (in the philosophical sense of 'possible world) where agony isn't evil, just like there can be no possible world where triangles have 4 sides?

    That being said, you do make a good case, pace Heumber and Wielenberg, for ethical intuitionism (and I think that ethical intuitionism is probably true as well), however I would still press you to explain what exactly you think the status of moral properties are.

    • Steven Dillon

      Thanks for the points Tim.

      I've avoided talking about whether moral properties are natural or non-natural because that does not seem to affect whether agony is intrinsically bad.

      Suppose that Ethical Naturalism is true. Then, I'd say the badness of agony is constituted by the pain involved in agony. On the other hand, if moral properties are not natural, I'd just say that agony exemplifies the non-natural property of badness in every possible world.

      As to the proposition 'agony is intrinsically bad', I do maintain that it's necessarily true. Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of necessity: de re, and de dicto. To say that something is necessary de dicto is to say that it exists, or is true in every single possible world. To say that something is necessary de re is to say that it has some property in every possible world in which it exists. Thus, that I have a mind is necessary de re (for without one, I can't exist), but not de dicto (because there are innumerable possible worlds in which I fail to exist).

      So, I don't mean that the proposition 'agony is intrinsically bad' is necessary de dicto, because there are some possible worlds without any agony. However, I do believe that it is necessary de re: in every possible world in which there is agony, agony is in and of itself a bad thing.

      • Tim Dacey

        Sorry for the delay Steven. Let me respond and I'll give you the last word.

        I'm familiar with the de re/de dicto distinction but I'm not sure how much it will help your case.

        Let's leave aside the proposition 'agony is intrinsically bad' (as the claim is most certainly false; there are plenty of good reasons to think that it's not the case that agony is intrinsically bad). Consider this rough outline instead, which I think is your argument.

        P1. "It is the case that in every possible world where 'x' exists, it necessarily has property 'y'."

        P2. Furthermore, where 'x' is a moral proposition it necessarily has property 'y' in every possible world where it exists

        P3. 'x' exists in this world

        C. Therefore, 'x' necessarily has property 'y' in this world.

        Your argument (assuming I have represented you fairly) is pretty convincing to me. It does seem (again, assuming the argument is right) then that objective morality does exist in some possible worlds. However, I am not convinced that (as you suggest) objective moral truths are like logical truths, as logical truths necessarily exist in *every* possible world, i.e., there is no possible world in which logical do not exist.

        To conclude: my view is that even if I weren't a Christian I would still think that moral truths are objective (at least in this possible world), however, I wouldn't think they are like logical truths. However, since *I am* a Christian I do think that moral truths are like logical ones since I think objective morality is rooted in God's ontology, and I think God necessarily exists in every possible world.

  • Steven and Joe - Thank you both for putting so much time and thought into this riveting debate! Steven, although I would finally disagree that your case is stronger than Joe's, you certainly argued your case very persuasively, and caused me to re-think the matter in several ways. I also want to commend you both for the care you took to define your terms, and to make sure you understood your opponent's views correctly before going after them. Your debate has been a real exemplar of what Strange Notions can achieve.

  • Raphael

    I'm still trying to understand Steven's argument about agony. What exactly makes agony intrinsically bad? All he does is just give examples of bad things:

    But, ‘badness’ doesn’t just emphasize the pain of agony nor is it just a moral evil. In fact, moral evil is a proper subset of badness. Badness is an enormous category that we all recognize on a daily basis, which is why I’ve been stubborn in explicating this: it seems far too close to experience to need analysis. To illustrate its breadth, badness also includes natural evils. Thus, we tend to think that it’s ‘bad’ when hundreds of children drown after a natural event occurs such as a tsunami striking a village. Badness even transcends actions. We say “I had a bad day”, and “This is just a bad situation.” It is the most fundamental disvalue known to us. So, as we can see, Joe’s counter-examples are not successful. Agony is intrinsically bad, even though it’s not intrinsically morally evil. Note, in using such a broad notion of badness, my proposition is still moral as it concerns evaluative facts that relate to what we should and should not do.

    In Steven's opening statement, he presented the examples of shattered bones and paper cuts. What is different about them (besides the degree of pain) that makes one more bad than the other?

  • Jordan Miller


    Thanks for your argument (and to Joe as well). A few things:

    The question of what "founds" morality is a red herring. If I read you correctly, you are saying "Why can't morality be foundational, thus needing nothing deeper upon which to rest? If God can be foundational, why not morality? To say that God doesn't need a foundation but morality does is special pleading."

    Let's grant this, and affirm "Morality is foundational, resting on nothing." 'Objective morality' is equivalent to the transcendental 'good,' so to say 'Objective morality is foundational' is to say 'good is foundational,' and also to say 'the transcendentals (truth, good, beauty) are foundational.'

    So the transcendentals are foundational. In a certain way, this seems so obvious as to be banal; after all, they are transcendentals in that they ARE being (being = truth, being = good, being = beauty, etc.).

    But if this is the case, then the question of whether objective morality is foundational or founded becomes irrelevant, because 'God' = being itself subsisting, and thus also truth, good, beauty. What I mean is that it very well may be that morality is foundational and rests on nothing deeper; but if "objective morality" is nothing other than the transcendental 'good,' and God is Being and for that reason all of the transcendentals, you still end up with God when you try to have only objective morality (because God = Good, just as God = Truth, or God = Beauty).

    The debate, then, cannot be resolved by saying "Morality needs no foundation, because morality is foundational," as (a) this is equivalent to saying "Good needs no foundation, because good is foundational," and (b) God = good.

    You identify the actual heart of the debate when you mention the Third Way (and by extension, the other ways). You are correct in saying that the Third Way does not prove God in the Biblical sense, but rather a Necessary Being. But Necessary Being = Being as such, and Being as such = good, and thus (foundation-less) morality.

    The whole debate between yourself and Joe turns on whether the Necessary Being is God (in the sense of a Person, not only a Cause). If the Necessary Being is God, then to talk about objective morality is necessarily to talk about God. If the Necessary Being is not God, then your argument would hold. But in either case, the "founded or foundation-less?" thing is a distraction.