William Lane Craig’s version of the Moral Argument goes something like this:
- If objective moral values exist then God exists.
- Objective moral values exist.
- Therefore God exists.
I think there is room for reasonable doubt on both of the premises, but in this post I’ll only consider the second premise – that moral values are objective.
This is an argument for the existence of God and so it is not incumbent on the atheist to give a robust moral theory in order to object to this premise. All that is needed is to show that there is reasonable doubt as to its truth. By ‘objective’ we mean mind-independent, and so by giving a reasonably plausible account of morals in terms of the mind (‘subjectivism’) we undermine the idea that there are objective moral values. I’ll start by outlining one possible account of moral subjectivism. This is not ‘the atheist view’, as atheists may hold a variety of different beliefs about the nature of morality (including that objective moral values exist). My purpose is to show that we can make sense of morals without appealing to objective values.
So what sort of thing are ‘subjective values’? To answer this, consider aesthetic values. I don’t think it is controversial to say that aesthetic values are subjective – what we mean when we say something like “Beethoven’s Ninth is a great symphony” is that we hold it in great esteem, perhaps as a result of our enjoying hearing it, or admiration for the skill with which it was written. If there are no minds then there is nothing that can appreciate it, and so there are no such aesthetic values. I propose that morality is something like this. When we say “killing is wrong” we mean that we find killing to be wrong, just as we hold the Ninth in high regard. This might be as a result of empathy for the victims and their relatives, or the consideration of the brutality of the act itself. Whatever the reason, there are some actions that when duly considered by a human mind, are viewed with extreme disapproval.
It is at this point that objections usually rear their head. “What about events like the Holocaust? If moral subjectivism is true then, since the Nazis thought what they were doing was ‘right’, we cannot say our disapproval is any more ‘correct’ then their approval. It is simply a matter of taste.” Our hypothesis might answer this by biting the bullet – yes there is not one opinion more ‘correct’ than the other, as these values are by nature subjective. But why should this be a problem, unless we assume from the outset that moral values are objective? The assumption seems to be that if we concede that there are no objective moral facts then we should also concede that we are not justified in seeing any particular act as ‘wrong’. However that doesn’t seem to follow. Just because the philistine’s view that Beethoven’s Ninth is ‘trashy musak’ might be no more ‘incorrect’ than my own, it doesn’t follow that I should abandon my view that it is a great symphony. I don’t even have to accept the crude idea that ‘it is just a matter of taste’. Many people hold the Ninth in high esteem, and calling it ‘trash’ just seems plain weird, even for those who don’t usually listen to orchestral symphonies. Our minds are such (either by their own nature or by the conditions of our upbringing) that we tend to appreciate certain aesthetics more than others. We can argue about the worth of artistic works, and there is a sense in which we see those who do not agree with our view as being ‘wrong’ to do so. In the same way, the vast majority of us disapprove of criminal acts like murder and theft. While there is a minority who do not see it that way, we are still entitled to our view that sees such acts as morally wrong. According to our hypothesis, that does not mean that it is not a subjective value, just as our view that the philistine is wrong about the Ninth is a subjective judgement.
Let’s pick a more extreme example. Suppose the Nazis wiped out everyone on Earth apart from those who agree with them. Then the universal view would be that anti-semitic genocide is ‘right’. Does this mean that there is no sense in which their actions are ‘wrong’? No it doesn’t. Even though we do not exist in that possible world, from our vantage point in the actual world we are still entitled to make the subjective judgement that their actions are wrong. It might be true that in that world there is nobody to see the Nazis’ actions as wrong, but it does not follow from that fact that I should concede they are ‘right’, as I am making an independent moral judgement based on my own moral views. So I do not think that the example is particularly worrying for moral subjectivism.
Another objection may go as follows: “your hypothesis talking about ‘seeing actions as being wrong’ but does not account for why things are really wrong. Raping a child is not really wrong on your view but just ‘seen as wrong’, which is counter-intuitive”. This is a legitimate worry – that subjectivists are ‘downplaying’ the wrongness of terrible acts like rape. However, this view is committed to a belief that I think is mistaken, namely that if something is subjective then it is not real. I don’t think it is right to say that just because something may be wrong subjectively then it isn’t wrong at all. All we mean is that it isn’t wrong in an objective sense, but that is the very question we are discussing – the objection really just amounts to an assertion that moral values are objective, which begs the question. We might find it counter-intuitive that moral values are subjective, but it seems plausible the force and liveliness of our moral feelings make it seem that way – we disapprove of things like rape so strongly that we think we are accessing some objective moral truth.
This is just an outline of just one account of subjective morality, which I think is sufficient to cast reasonable doubt on the premise that objective moral values exist. To rescue this premise, the theist must both show why the hypothesis I outlined does not successfully account for morality, and provide strong reasons why morals must be objective. It is not sufficient to poke holes in just one subjectivist theory, since to prove the premise true the theist must show that all subjective accounts are doomed to failure.
Of course, there is more that can be said and if needed I’ll write a follow-up. I’d appreciate any comments and/or objections.