Objections to the Moral Argument

The moral argument takes the existence of objective moral facts to be evidence for the existence of God. Morality consists of a set of commands, and there must therefore be someone who issued those commands. Further, moral considerations always outweigh non-moral considerations, and whoever commanded morality must therefore have authority over everything else.

Moral Scepticism

One response to the moral argument is the sceptical objection, the denial that there is any such thing as morality.

It might be suggested that morality is a tool invented by the powerful and inculcated into the masses in order to keep them in control, that there are no real limits on what we can and cannot do, but that it is in the interests of those who run society for us to think that there are.

However it is put, this objection holds that the theist cannot argue from moral truths to God, because there are no moral truths from which to argue.

Response

I have no idea what to say to people who think along these lines. I find this view incomprehensible. I strongly suspect that most people who say these kinds of things know better; that what they deny with their lips they know in their hearts to be true.

Some acts are wrong; few things are more obvious than this. The existence of morality is most obvious when we suffer by its being violated. When we are wronged, we quickly feel the moral imbalance.

Those who cannot see this, who genuinely lack a sense of morality, are usually taken to suffer from a psychological disorder; they are called sociopaths. I confess that I do not know how to persuade such people that the world is not morally void, but thankfully they are in the minority; most people do recognise that there is such a thing as morality.

Evolutionary Ethics

A more comprehensible attempt to refute the moral argument suggests that a naturalistic explanation of morality can be given by the theory of evolution.

Given a world in which the resources necessary to support life are scarce and danger is all around us, people will have to compete to survive. Those that compete well will survive and reproduce more people like them; those that compete poorly will disappear.

Groups of people that cooperate are more likely to survive and reproduce than are groups of people that do not. Natural selection, then, will favour those forms of behaviour that we call moral, because they have survival value.

Over time, this process will lead to a moral instinct in human beings, a natural propensity to act well.

Responses

However plausible this explanation may be for some elements of morality, there are other elements of morality that cannot be explained in this way.

Altruistic behaviour, by definition, is not in one’s own interests. The extreme of altruism—giving up one’s life in order that others might live—cannot be the result of conditioning through natural selection. Those who give up their lives for others are eliminated from the gene pool. Extreme self-sacrifice is a trait that natural selection not only does not encourage, but should even eliminate from society. The selfish are more likely to survive and reproduce than are the selfless.

Even the foremost advocate of evolution theory, Richard Dawkins, recognises this. In The Selfish Gene, he writes:

“My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true... Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” [Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press (1989), p3]

What is more, even if it were possible to explain our moral instincts using evolution, this would not explain morality so much as explain those instincts away.

We tend to believe that we are subject to moral obligations, that we ought to act in certain ways. An evolutionary explanation of those beliefs would entirely undermine them; it would tell us why we have those beliefs but it would give us no reason to think that they are true.

In fact, it would do the opposite; it would explain why we have those beliefs even though there is no such thing as morality. The evolutionary objection to the moral argument is the sceptical objection in a different guise.

If we believe that there really are moral principles that bind us and other people, then this appeal to evolution will not satisfy us.