Can Objective Morality Exist Without God? (Round 2)

My debate with Steven Dillon on whether objective morality can exist without God  continues on Strange Notions. On Wednesday, they posted my rebuttal to Steven’s opening statement, and today, they posted Steven’s rebuttal to my opening statement.

From my rebuttal:

Is Agony Intrinsically Evil?

In my opening statement, I suggested that non-theistic moral systems cannot be the source of objective moral claims. In his opening statement, Steven proposed what he described as an “exceptionally good” candidate for a necessarily true moral proposition: that “agony is intrinsically bad.”
He defines “agony” as “an intense and extreme amount of pain.” But instead of defining what it means to call agony “intrinsically bad,” he simply gives “some paradigmatic examples of bad things.” For example: “It’s bad when parents have to live their lives in worry and stress because of inopportunity and an unfair society.”
So what does it mean to call agony “intrinsically bad,” exactly? Do we mean simply that agony is extremely unpleasant or, in some way, painful? If so, that seems tautological, like saying “extremely painful things are painful.” Besides being uninformative, that’s not even a moral claim. [….]
Let’s consider an alternative interpretation of the proposition “agony is intrinsically bad.” Since Steven tells us that this is a moral proposition, he may mean that agony is a moral evil, never to be intentionally committed. If so, is that true?
At first glance, it certainly seems like good advice. But is it morally evil to intentionally suffer? Put more concretely, do we consider it morally evil for a woman to intentionally get pregnant, given the pain of childbirth? Or what about the surgeon who performs an agonizing (but life-saving) operation? Are high-stress jobs immoral? If so, what makes these things evil? Again, we’re left hunting for some sort of objective and binding moral code or system.
So, understood in either sense, then, “agony is intrinsically bad” fails as an objective moral claim. It’s either a non-moral tautology, or a false (and non-objective) moral claim.

The Problem of Intuitionism

In the last section, we saw that under either interpretation of the proposition “agony is intrinsically bad,” we were left looking for some sort of moral code or system. Instead, Steven advocates something akin to what the utilitarian R.M. Hare described as “pluralistic intuitionism”: namely, belief in “a plurality of moral principles, each established by intuition, and not related to one another in an ordered structure, but only weighed relatively to each other (also by intuition) when they conflict.” There are several problems with this pluralistic intuitionism.
Dred Scott

First, it’s not an objective moral code. Intuitions differ. Steven takes it as self-evident that “Racism, animal cruelty, human trafficking, all of these things are bad.” For centuries, Europeans and white Americans assumed the opposite, at least about racism. As the Supreme Court noted in the notorious Dred Scott v. Sandford case:

“They [racist colonial laws] show that a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery, and governed as subjects with absolute and despotic power, and which they then looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings, that intermarriages between white persons and negroes or mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral, and punished as crimes, not only in the parties, but in the person who joined them in marriage. And no distinction in this respect was made between the free negro or mulatto and the slave, but this stigma, of the deepest degradation, was fixed upon the whole race.”
So the ordinary American today views racial equality as self-evident and racism as a morally intuitive evil. The ordinary (white) American of yesteryear viewed racial inequality as self-evident, believing it immoral to treat black and white people as equals. Upon what basis can we say that their moral intuition and judgment was wrong? Our own intuition? Or something more substantive?
Second, pluralistic intuitionism provides no basis for rational moral decision-making. Russ Shafer-Landau, as Steven notes, says, “It seems to me self-evident that, other things equal, it is wrong to take pleasure in another’s pain,” etc. In saying that it “seems to me” self-evident, Shafer-Landau seems to be conceding the subjectivity of intuitionism. But in saying “other things equal,” Shafer-Landau is revealing a second problem: what do we do when we have a clash of values?
Moral reasoning is simple when all other things are equal. What makes it so vexing is that this is rarely the case. Often, moral reasoning involves apparently-competing values, like justice v. mercy, private property v. equitable distribution of goods, etc. If your moral code is a hodgepodge of unsorted feelings, you have no tools other than gut feeling to decide these questions. As Hare said, these values are “only weighed relatively to each other (also by intuition) when they conflict.”
Third, all forms of intuitionism point to (and rely upon) God. Mind you, I don’t doubt that moral intuitions exist. But as we’ve seen, they’re incoherent without reference to God. If these really are objective and binding laws of human behavior, where is the law-giver? Given that these laws exist, why do they exist? Steven quotes Erik Wielenberg, who treats these laws as an effect without a cause:
“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.”
This 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 mustexist, 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 assumethat God must exist: we show that He must.
Further, this conclusion makes sense. After all, God is Subsistent Being (ipsum esse subsistens). Being could no more not-be than non-being could be. Asking who caused the Uncaused Cause is contradictory, and it makes sense to say that a necessarily-existing Being necessarily exists.
That’s quite different when we’re dealing with moral principles: there’s no apparent reason or explanation why we would assume that they’re uncaused (other than the alternative requires God).
And asking who or what causes these truths isn’t contradictory. On the contrary, it’s a question that anyone who insists on the existence of objective morality should be able to answer. Do these various moral truths exist apart from us? Or did we bring them into existence somehow? It doesn’t make sense to simply assert the existence of myriad uncaused and unrelated moral truths, and claim that these are each necessarily-existing, particularly when no two intuitionist philosophers seem to agree on what these principles are.
Asserting that there are random incommensurable moral rules is no basis for establishing morality as binding. The origin of these laws is “just because.” Why follow these authorless laws? Apparently, just because. Needless to say, that’s hardly a sufficient reason to justify changing one’s lifestyle or moral behavior.
When we describe something as “pointless,” we mean that it doesn’t have a purpose.It’s only in relation to a purpose that we can say whether something succeeds or fails. The most common atheistic cosmology is that the universe is an objectively meaningless accident, and therefore, pointless. But if the entire universe is devoid of inherent meaning, how can we possibly find meaning inherent in our moral behavior (or misbehavior)?

Read on for the whole thing, as well as Steven’s rebuttal, in which he argues that objective morality doesn’t need to be grounded.


  1. This is a very interesting set of arguments Joe. Would you mind if I posed some questions?

    My starting position is that as a Christian (Anglican flavour) I naturally agree with you that there is objective morality and that morality is rooted in the nature of God. Anyone who has ‘met’ God in prayer will know that God exists and that in knowing Him we are changed and act differently. The atheist will argue that this is a very bad thing because we’re being changed not by God but by human indoctrination, but let that aside for now. My experience was that God loves us and that this love (as revealed together and verified in experience and scripture) became the solid ground of all my ‘intuitive’ morality.

    But my questions are really about the flow of your logic. You are arguing that unless morality is rooted in God, it is relative and cultural. Indeed with any moral edict in human history we can probably always find a culture or time when the opposite moral position was held. I’ve never really found a good counter-example. But if we can’t find any examples of objective morality that have been clearly accepted as true for all of known human history, the only source of objective morality can be God. So far so good. But then we have the old problem of “Who gets to interpret what God’s objective morality is?” This very much depends on our hermeneutic for discovering who God is and what he desires for us and of us. This then reduces to the usual argument about Church authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition and their relationship to individual conscience and the use of Reason, which Anglicans call on as their third pillar.

    So the danger of your argument I think is that if you go beyond the point of successfully arguing for objective morality rooted in God alone, you then get into a very difficult argument about whether it’s possible to agree what that objective morality is – i.e. can we agree on who God is, and what He is like? As a Catholic I’d expect you to say “Yes! That is the purpose of the Catechism and the authority of the Church to promulgate it.” But there are many baptised Christians who do not accept the Catholic Church’s authority to determine these things, whose knowledge or experience or understanding of God (and therefore His objective morality) is slightly or significantly different to yours, cf the arguments over gay marriage and the ontological vocations of each gender. The danger is that we end up with something that still looks like relative morality, albeit minor squabbles within a family. Then the atheist will (perhaps rightly) suspect that actually our so-called objective morality is no more or less objective than theirs is, but is rooted in human cultural opinion and tradition.

    I actually suspect that it may be the objective/relative dichotomy itself that is unhelpful. My ‘morality’ – my moral behaviour and choices – flow out of my experience and knowledge of God’s unconditional love for His children. There is a sort-of objective morality – God’s Love – but the outflow of that can be quite different in different places and times and in different people. “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” [Gal 5:22-23]. We might disagree about what love looks like in particular circumstances, but the objectivity is in the Divine motivation of love, not necessarily in the expression of it.


    1. Tess,

      Great comments. You said:

      You are arguing that unless morality is rooted in God, it is relative and cultural. Indeed with any moral edict in human history we can probably always find a culture or time when the opposite moral position was held. I’ve never really found a good counter-example.

      This is actually a bit different from what I’m trying to argue. Atheists can (and do) know parts of the natural law, apart from knowing that God exists. Everyone can know that it’s wrong to kill innocent people — even cultures that permit it tend to face all manner of psychological consequences for it. J. Budziszewski has pointed out that the Nazi concentration camp guards, the seeming exception to this argument, were plagued by guilt and sought recourse to psychologists, even while they tried to justify their actions. Some actions, we just know are wrong.

      My point was that none of that makes sense if there’s no God. If “morality” is nothing more than a social or biological byproduct (like not putting your elbows on the table, or the reproductive drive), then it ought to be our slave, not our master. A man is not lauded for being a slave to his passions: why should he be lauded for being enslaved to his socio-biological mores?

      John Henry Cardinal Newman (who spent some time in both of our Communions) argues that morality carries with it a sense of external judgment. Whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly true that, without God, morality loses any binding authority.

      But then we have the old problem of “Who gets to interpret what God’s objective morality is?” This very much depends on our hermeneutic for discovering who God is and what he desires for us and of us. This then reduces to the usual argument about Church authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition and their relationship to individual conscience and the use of Reason, which Anglicans call on as their third pillar.
      To be sure, my argument is just a first step. Proving that God’s existence is needed for objective and binding morality doesn’t tell us exactly what that morality is, but it certainly gives us a place to start. Natural law would be the logical next step, unless and until the person is convinced of the truth of Christian revelation and the Church. I think you do a good job, whether you intend to or not, of showing some obvious examples of moral goods (” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”). These are all virtues that one can recognize without being a Christian – and indeed, virtues that the Greek philosophers praised.

      And of course, you’re absolutely right that the existence of objective morality doesn’t stop us from coming up with our own relativistic (or simply-wrong) moral codes.

  2. So can there then be self-giving Love without God? Isn’t that what it really comes down to? This at least places us on the same side of the argument (whereas your arguments so far tend to require acceptance of the Catholic Church’s authority to promulgate morality and ‘make law against goodness’ – at least that’s how gay people feel!). While I agree entirely that there is an objective morality rooted in God’s existence, the actual expression of that in the world is interpreted by humanity differently, and I think it’s important to accept that. This is, incidentally, I think what lay behind Pope Francis’ recent comment that “The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience,” because anyone who does that will eventually meet the God they don’t believe exists. At least, that’s how it was for me.

    with love,

    1. I meant to add this in response to your last comment, but I’ll say it here: you’ve hit what I think is a very important issue. The arguments for the existence of God can clear the underbrush to make the path straight towards faith, but they can’t substitute for faith. Only an encounter with the living God will suffice.

      A couple weeks ago, we were on a mission trip down to an engineering college. One of my seminarian brothers, wearing a Roman collar, sat down with a young man who immediately said (with a bit of bravado), “I’m an atheist.” My friend has a degree as an engineer, and was able to more than keep his own on the intellectual side. He also happens to be one of the gentlest souls you’ll ever encounter. The two of them sat and talked for about six hours, over the course of two days. My friend gave the young man a book to read on the first day: by the time he saw him again the next day, he’d already read most of it.

      Eventually, the young man was convinced that Catholicism (and faith more broadly) was much more rational than he’d initially realized. But the task wasn’t done yet: his head had run out of objections, but his heart wasn’t converted yet. My friend recognized this, and invited him to pray the Our Father together. The young man joined the prayer quietly, and that made all the difference in the world. He left the conversation promising to check out the faith, and the two exchanged e-mails.

      The intellectual arguments are important, at least for some people. People really do have intellectual problems with Christianity, and we can’t just disregard these. We don’t want to reduce the faith to something irrational. But of course, we can’t do the opposite, either, reducing the faith to a set of intellectual propositions. It’s infinitely more than that.



    2. Yes, I completely agree. It was this way for me too when I came to faith. I was deeply impressed intellectually by a priest who officiated at a wedding of a friend of mine and I spent most of the reception talking to the guy (who had studied theology at the same college I studied maths). Later I was provoked to yearn for faith and tried praying, and that was what transformed my heart. But yes, being intellectually ‘matched’ first was also very important.

  3. On another topic I must admit I find these Thomistic arguments for the existence of an uncaused God rather weak. It seems to me that even if we insist on an uncaused first cause, it still doesn’t follow that this has to be a creator God. It could equally be the case that the universe or multiverse itself is uncaused, or indeed the physical laws that make the universe ‘necessary’.

    Interestingly this works equally against the atheist argument for an uncreated universe as it does against the theist argument for an uncreated creator God. If there can be an uncreated universe, then why not an uncreated God? Something is uncaused, we just can’t prove what it is.

    Intellectual arguments for God’s existence always seem to me rather lacking and not a little dangerous, because it bypasses love. Starting with intellectual belief can all too easily (perhaps even inevitably) lead to loveless rule-keeping. Isn’t it better to come to belief in God by knowing or experiencing His love? Otherwise you’re just as likely to argue someone out of belief as into it. And anyway… “convince a man against his will, he’s of the same opinion still” as the all-too-accurate aphorism goes. I speak as usual from my own experience, having been intellectually convinced of God’s existence aged 20 by the ‘mad, bad or God’ argument. But it wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I actually ‘met’ God in prayer and knew myself to be intimately loved, which made all scholastic intellectual arguments irrelevant.

    So in terms of your argument above, your interlocutor is saying that objective morality doesn’t have to have God as a cause, rather it can have the universe as a cause; and since we cannot prove whether the universe is uncaused in itself or needs an uncaused creator, then there is no need for God for there to be an objective morality. I don’t think your argument defeats this. Nevertheless I agree your opponent is still wrong, because while conceptually ‘objective morality’ may be argued to have emerged impersonally from the nature of the universe, Love is always experienced as very personal, flowing not from physics but from a Person. We’re coming at it backwards if we look to objective morality to prove God. First we meet God, and to know Him is to know Love. Then objective morality follows.

    I do hate all these scholastic distractions, addictively interesting as they may be. Narcotic chewing gum for the mind! 🙂

    with love,

    1. T,

      God’s existence is knowable through reason alone, as St. Paul tells us in Romans 1:18-21 and elsewhere.

      St. Thomas has a good answer to your objection with an important Scholastic distinction (I know how much you love those!). Anything that’s beginningless and endless is said to be “necessary,” since it can’t not be. We can imagine both God and the universe fitting this description. In fact, there could be any number of “necessary” things: mathematical and physical laws, etc.

      But apart from God, those other necessary things can’t account for their own existence. Thomas puts it this way:

      “But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.

      Put in simpler terms: if we assume that the universe is without beginning or end, we’re still left with the question, why does the universe exist? But since God is “I AM WHO AM,” He suffices as an explanation for His own existence.



    2. Hi Joe,

      Thanks for the reply 🙂

      I think that if I were to play atheist’s advocate, I would struggle with the leap from the necessity of something uncaused to the idea of calling that ‘God’ (though even the word ‘something’ is unhelpful because it is a sort of category error, implicitly calling the Uncaused a ‘thing’). Atheists can (and do) point to laws of physics as uncaused and necessary in the same way that theists refer to God as such. I don’t see any purely logical reason (though there are plenty of emotional ones) for preferring the existence of a loving God over uncaring unaware physical laws as the ground of all being. It’s only been my experience of God through the impact of prayer in me that allows me to feel confident in the former over the latter.

      I think if you ask an atheist “but why then do the laws of physics exist?” they can riposte with “but why then does God exist?” The theist may say God is “I AM” but the atheist sees no need for a Person (and no evidence of one) behind the curtain. For him, uncaused laws of physics are sufficient.

      I’m not convinced there’s a logical way round this, and I’m not sure God even would want us to have one. At some point we have to choose Who or what we desire most. God always lovingly asks us what we want, without imposing Himself.

      God bless,

  4. The Dred Scott decision further inflamed tensions in the free territories and led up to the civil war. The decision reflected the views of an extremely conservative supreme court stacked with southerners. But it hardly reflected the views the majority of Americans in the north. Progressive republicans of the era were in fact quite vocal about the moral abomination that was slavery.

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