Can Objective Morality Exist Without God? (Round 3)

Yesterday marked the conclusion of my debate with Steven Dillion on objective morality and the existence of God. Here’s everything, in case you missed any of it:

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)

From my closing statement:

In affirming the resolution, “Does objective morality depend upon God?” I’ve argued two things: (a) that objective morality can be grounded in God; and (b) that objective morality cannot be grounded in anything other than God. Steven challenged (b), claiming that moral truths like “suffering is inherently bad” are simply and intuitively true, and do not rely upon God.
In my rebuttal, I asked, “what does it mean to call agony ‘intrinsically bad,’ exactly?” If we mean that agony is inherently painful, that’s a tautology, not a moral claim. As Peter Geach explained in Good and Evil:
“[I]f I call a man a good burglar or a good cut-throat I am certainly not commending him myself; one can imagine circumstances in which these descriptions would serve to guide another man’s choice (e.g. if a commando leader were choosing burglars and cut-throats for a special job), but such circumstances are rare and cannot give the primary sense of the descriptions. It ought to be clear that calling a thing a good A does not influence choice unless the one who is choosing happens to want an A; and this influence on action is not the logically primary force of the word “good”.”
So, to turn “agony is intrinsically bad (painful)” into an objective moral claim, you would have to have an objective moral system (e.g., that we should always pursue pleasure and avoid painful or unpleasant things). But the terms don’t carry that system within themselves, and there’s no objective, non-theistic way to construct this or any other moral system.
On the other hand, if we mean that agony is an intrinsic evil, that’s false. Steven has yet to define his term, but his answer to Question 1 suggests that this is his meaning. I’ll proceed under that assumption.
To say that an act is intrinsically evil is to say that it may never be done. By “evil,” we mean that sort of thing that ought not be done; by “intrinsically,” we mean that it ought not be done of itself, without consideration of any consequences. We ought not rape, murder, etc., regardless of the good or bad consequences of an individual act of rape or murder.
But that’s not what Steven argues at all. He says that suffering can be inflicted if it is the “lesser of two evils.” I asked about the case of a woman intentionally getting pregnant, given the pains of childbirth. He says that “if a woman has to endure the excruciating pain of child-birth so that the child may be born, we should permit the suffering, otherwise a child dies.” That’s telling, but not my question: if a woman chooses to get pregnant, the alternative isn’t that a child dies. It’s that a child is never conceived. So the “lesser of two evils” principle doesn’t apply. By Steven’s initial analysis, it would seem that every instance of intentional conception is evil. But now, it seems that he’ll permit agony not only to avoid greater evils, but also to achieve greater goods (like procreation).
If it is okay to inflict agony in some cases, then agony is not intrinsically evil. This refutes the claim that “agony is intrinsically bad (evil).”
At this point, Steven seems to have shifted to utilitarianism, a moral system which I rejected in my opinion statement, in a passage left unrebutted:
“[U]tilitarianism leads to unconscionable resultsNo action—slavery, rape, genocide, torture, etc.—could ever be described as objectively evil. We’d have to determine how much pleasure the slavemaster, rapist, genocidaire, and torturer derive (along with the pleasure or displeasure of the general public). Only after we’ve weighed all of those factors, could we determine whether the action is right or wrong.”
Steven hasn’t, and can’t, show this moral framework to be true, or binding upon anyone.
Stepping back from the particulars of the claim “agony is intrinsically bad,” is the broader problem of moral intuitionism, which I raised in my rebuttal: namely, that it’s not an objective moral code, since intuitions differ from person to person; that it provides no basis for rational decision-making, because there’s no mechanism for resolving competing values; and that all true moral intuition relies upon God.
Rockefeller Center
Steven gives an intriguing illustration of the moral system he’s defending:
“Think of a tall skyscraper. What grounds it? Well, you might say its foundation. And what grounds its foundation? You could say the land in which it is built in or upon. And what grounds the land? You could continue asking of each proposed grounding structure what grounds it. Assuming this cannot continue on indefinitely, you’ll reach a point where there simply is no deeper grounding structure: you’ve struck rock bottom. I’m saying that moral facts are grounded by other moral facts, and so on until we reach moral facts so foundational there’s just no further to go. This is radically different from saying that there is no rock bottom, and moral facts just sort of…free-float.”
I largely agree with this view. In fact, it’s virtually identical to the first three of Thomas’ Five Ways. But Steven stops too soon in his digging into the foundation: you can’t logically conclude that there are several rock bottoms. Even the moral claims he’s arguing that are irreducibly fundamental aren’t. If they were, he couldn’t say that they are permissible in some cases. To say that a certain truth is foundational, if it means anything, means that it’s not just true in certain situations.
This is why moral intuitionism provides no capacity for rational moral decision-making: if both equitable distribution of goods and respect for private property are irreducibly foundational moral principles, what do we do when they clash? It’s an irresistible force and an unmovable object: a contradiction that exposes the incoherence of the intuitionist worldview. Likewise, in saying that agony is sometimes permissible, Steven shows that it’s not a foundational principle that agony is inherently evil.
Still, I agree with his impulse, to dig further and further into the metaphysical foundations. And the solution is to dig deeper, to the First Cause. There must be a single First Cause, or you can’t get this moral system off the ground. This First Cause can’t be anyone other than God (as we’ve seen, all other alternatives fail to create an objective moral system). That’s what I meant in the rebuttal about all forms of intuitionism relying upon God.
Steven objects that it doesn’t make sense to claim that objective morality depends upon God because we don’t have anything literal to say about God. Here, I must raise an objection: Steven complains that God isn’t reducible to the unaided human intellect. But a being that could be comprehended by the unaided human intellect would be, in some way, smaller than the intellect, and therefore, not God.

Read the whole thing, and Steven’s closing statement. Thanks to everyone who’s participated in any way in this debate, and your continued prayers for the success of the endeavor are much appreciated.


  1. I suspect something that might be causing the difference in conclusion is that you’re looking at ontologically how does morality exists, while he’s looking at “how do we know morality?” You’re asking for the order of being, and he’s giving the order of knowledge.

    For example, he’s right that there “moral facts so foundational there’s just no further to go”–in the order of knowledge. That’s called synderesis. As you well know, it tells us that good is to be done, and evil avoided. It tells us murder is evil; it tells us lying is evil; etc. It doesn’t tell us why these things are so. Synderesis is the foundation of our moral knowledge.

    That is different, however, from our philosophical knowledge about morality. Philosophy explains the basic facts that synderesis gives us. Murder and lying, etc., are wrong because they go against the order of nature. Philosophy tells us the order of nature. It also tells us–and this is most important–that we should obey the order of nature because God made it. And because God is good, good is to be done, and evil avoided.

    Synderesis has binding force even without conscious knowledge of God. But the facts it gives us cannot be philosophically grounded with conscious knowledge of God. So, in the order of being there can be no morality without God. There can also be no coherent philosophy of morality without God. But there is in us a convincing and un-silence-able voice, that tells us moral facts–rootlessly, as it were.

    It looks to me like he’s tracing morality back to synderesis and then stopping, whereas you want to push back into the order of being, to see what morality is and why the voice of synderesis should be heeded.

    (Of course, if I’ve said anything wrong, feel free to correct me!)

    P. S. I’m a little amused by his statement:

    “I’m saying that moral facts are grounded by other moral facts, and so on until we reach moral facts so foundational there’s just no further to go. This is radically different from saying that there is no rock bottom, and moral facts just sort of…free-float.”

    He’s saying that the basic moral facts just free-float. But he’s saying that he’s not saying that. This is what many atheists accuse Christians of doing with the Unmoved Mover–but we don’t actually do it. We prove that God must exist uncausedly: we don’t assume it. Atheists, for some reason, frequently appeal, in every area, to the idea of brute fact. Christians don’t. Yet we get accused of it rather often.


    1. Reuben,

      I think your point about the different approaches is spot-on. I said at the end of my rebuttal:

      “But does that mean that we need to know of God’s existence before we can know of morality? No.

      Let me illustrate with an example. A thing falling to the ground depends upon gravity. But surely, we observed that things fall before we understood why they fell. The technical explanation for this is that there’s a difference between ontology and epistemology. In the order of being, gravity is prior to the fall: it’s because gravity exists that the thing falls, not the other way around. But in the order of knowing, we know that things fall long before we know why they fall. In fact, the question “Why did that thing fall?” should point us towards the truth of gravity. It would be a mistake to respond to this question, “The thing just fell, no need to probe any deeper.”

      Likewise, both Steven and I have observed that objective morality exists. Now the question now is why it exists. Steven’s explanation amounts to “Just because.” I argue that we need to do better than this, and that objective morality cries out for the existence of God.”



  2. Thanks for the response! To his credit, he’s the only person I’ve ever seen who objects to the argument from contingency who actually understands the argument. I don’t think his objection holds for a few reasons–one of which being that he’s left with a bunch of contingent things, and no explanation. If causation by a necessary being isn’t the answer, what other possible answer is there? Also (unless I’m much mistaken–which may be, I’m far, far out of my depth), Aquinas responded to his objections about Pure Act causing contingent things and about the logical priority of the final cause over the efficient cause here:

    St. Thomas was a very thorough man!

    (This may be a different topic, but have you ever seen writing–whether academic or online–on why Aquinas “assumes” the necessary beings at the conclusion of the 5 Ways are all the same Being, and that that Being is God? I’ve read some about it before, but it was all scattered around in various places. It seems to me, though, like a fairly common objection to the 5 Ways, which deserves a solid, easy-to-find answer. I’m sure Aquinas wasn’t actually assuming anything: that isn’t characteristic of him. But, like all brilliant people, I’m sure he occasionally forgot to “show his work.”)

    This is certainly another topic, but: he says that there is a “class of propositions that would be true regardless of whether or not God exists” which includes, for example, “the laws of logic and mathematical truths.” Is this something that good Catholic philosophers agree with? I’ve thought for some while that God is the ground and cause of all things that all, including logic and mathematics–the Logos. Those things aren’t created, of course, but they’re just as dependent on Him as all other things.


    1. Reuben,

      I’ve been meaning to respond to this question before now (sorry for the delay). If you want to see Thomas show his work, it’s in Questions 3-11 of the First Part.

      I think that when people see Thomas conclude to “this being we call God,” they think that he’s saying “since I’ve shown the necessity of a First Cause, the Catholic understanding of God is true.” But that’s not what he’s saying: he’s just saying that we can know that some Being exists, and meets the definition of God, in the sense of being First Cause, necessary, etc.

      Thomas doesn’t stop there, either. This is just question 3 of Part I of the Summa. He then shows, in Questions 4-11, the other attributes of God that we can know, based upon what we know from the Five Ways.

      So, for example, we can know that God is simple (Q. 3), perfect (Q. 4), good (Q. 5-6), infinite, (Q. 7), omnipresent (Q. 8), immutable (Q. 9), eternal (Q. 10), and finally, One (Q. 11). Only after spelling out all of these attributes of God does Aquinas move from saying, “this being we call God” to saying “And this one is God.”



  3. Joe –

    Great summary. It all comes down to WHY!!! Just because isn’t enough for me. Man’s heart yearns for a creator to explain this world. Logic itself demonstrates structure in this world. “Just because” might make more sense if this world (not other planets) was chaotic and rules of logic, reason, science, math, etc. were inconsistent.

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