Argument from morality

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The argument from morality is an argument for the existence of God. Arguments from morality tend to be based on moral normativity or moral order. Arguments from moral normativity observe some aspect of morality and argue that God is the best or only explanation for this, concluding that God must exist. Arguments from moral order are based on the asserted need for moral order to exist in the universe. They claim that, for this moral order to exist, God must exist to support it. The argument from morality is noteworthy in that one cannot evaluate the soundness of the argument without attending to almost every important philosophical issue in meta-ethics.

The existence of God is a subject of debate in the philosophy of religion and popular culture.

In monotheistic thought, God is conceived of as the supreme being, creator deity, and principal object of faith. God is usually conceived as being omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (all-present) and as having an eternal and necessary existence. These attributes are used either in way of analogy or are taken literally. God is most often held to be incorporeal (immaterial). Incorporeality and corporeality of God are related to conceptions of transcendence and immanence of God, with positions of synthesis such as the "immanent transcendence".

Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.


German philosopher Immanuel Kant devised an argument from morality based on practical reason. Kant argued that the goal of humanity is to achieve perfect happiness and virtue (the summum bonum) and believed that an afterlife must exist in order for this to be possible, and that God must exist to provide this. In his book Mere Christianity , C. S. Lewis argued that "conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver." [1] [2] Lewis argued that accepting the validity of human reason as a given must include accepting the validity of practical reason, which could not be valid without reference to a higher cosmic moral order which could not exist without a God to create and/or establish it. A related argument is from conscience; John Henry Newman argued that the conscience supports the claim that objective moral truths exist because it drives people to act morally even when it is not in their own interest. Newman argued that, because the conscience suggests the existence of objective moral truths, God must exist to give authority to these truths.

Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant was an influential Prussian German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that space, time, and causation are mere sensibilities; "things-in-themselves" exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori ('beforehand'), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant's views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

In philosophy, practical reason is the use of reason to decide how to act. It contrasts with theoretical reason, often called speculative reason, the use of reason to decide what to follow. For example, agents use practical reason to decide whether to build a telescope, but theoretical reason to decide which of two theories of light and optics is the best.

Summum bonum is a Latin expression meaning "the highest good", which was introduced by the Roman philosopher Cicero, to correspond to the Idea of the Good in ancient Greek philosophy. The summum bonum is generally thought of as being an end in itself, and at the same time containing all other goods.

Contemporary defenders of the argument from morality are Graham Ward, Alister McGrath and William Lane Craig.

Graham John Ward is an English theologian and Anglican priest who has been Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford since 2012. He is a priest of the Church of England and was formerly the Samuel Ferguson Professor of Philosophical Theology and Ethics and the Head of the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures at the University of Manchester. Previous to that he was the Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics (1998–2009) and Senior Fellow in Religion and Gender (1997–98) at the university.

Alister McGrath Northern Irish priest and academic

Alister Edgar McGrath is a Northern Irish theologian, priest, intellectual historian, scientist, Christian apologist, and public intellectual. He currently holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and is Professor of Divinity at Gresham College. He was previously Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King's College London and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford, and was principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, until 2005. He is an Anglican priest.

William Lane Craig American Christian apologist and evangelist

William Lane Craig is an American analytic philosopher and Christian theologian. He holds faculty positions at Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University. Craig has updated and defended the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God. He has also published work where he argues in favor of the historical plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus. His study of divine aseity and Platonism culminated with his book God Over All. Craig has debated the existence of God with Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence M. Krauss and A. C. Grayling. Craig established and runs the online apologetics ministry

General form

All variations of the argument from morality begin with an observation about moral thought or experiences and conclude with the existence of God. Some of these arguments propose moral facts which they claim evident through human experience, arguing that God is the best explanation for these. Other versions describe some end which humans should strive to attain that is only possible if God exists. [3]

Many arguments from morality are based on moral normativity, which suggests that objective moral truths exist and require God's existence to give them authority. Often, they consider that morality seems to be binding – obligations are seen to convey more than just a preference, but imply that the obligation will stand, regardless of other factors or interests. For morality to be binding, God must exist. [4] In its most general form, the argument from moral normativity is:

  1. A human experience of morality is observed.
  2. God is the best or only explanation for this moral experience.
  3. Therefore, God exists. [4]

Some arguments from moral order suggest that morality is based on rationality and that this can only be the case if there is a moral order in the universe. The arguments propose that only the existence of God as orthodoxly conceived could support the existence of moral order in the universe, so God must exist. Alternative arguments from moral order have proposed that we have an obligation to attain the perfect good of both happiness and moral virtue. They attest that whatever we are obliged to do must be possible, and achieving the perfect good of both happiness and moral virtue is only possible if a natural moral order exists. A natural moral order requires the existence of God as orthodoxly conceived, so God must exist. [5]


Practical Reason

Portrait of Immanuel Kant, who proposed an argument for the existence of God from morality Immanuel Kant (painted portrait).jpg
Portrait of Immanuel Kant, who proposed an argument for the existence of God from morality

In his Critique of Pure Reason , German philosopher Immanuel Kant stated that no successful argument for God's existence arises from reason alone. In his Critique of Practical Reason he went on to argue that, despite the failure of these arguments, morality requires that God's existence is assumed, owing to practical reason. [6] Rather than proving the existence of God, Kant was attempting to demonstrate that all moral thought requires the assumption that God exists. [7] Kant argued that humans are obliged to bring about the summum bonum : the two central aims of moral virtue and happiness, where happiness arises out of virtue. As ought implies can, Kant argued, it must be possible for the summum bonum to be achieved. [5] He accepted that it is not within the power of humans to bring the summum bonum about, because we cannot ensure that virtue always leads to happiness, so there must be a higher power who has the power to create an afterlife where virtue can be rewarded by happiness. [6]

Philosopher G. H. R. Parkinson notes a common objection to Kant's argument: that what ought to be done does not necessarily entail that it is possible. He also argues that alternative conceptions of morality exist which do not rely on the assumptions that Kant makes – he cites utilitarianism as an example which does not require the summum bonum. [8] Nicholas Everitt argues that much moral guidance is unattainable, such as the Biblical command to be Christ-like. He proposes that Kant's first two premises only entail that we must try to achieve the perfect good, not that it is actually attainable. [9]

Argument from objective moral truths

Both theists and non-theists have accepted that the existence of objective moral truths might entail the existence of God. Atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie accepted that, if objective moral truths existed, they would warrant a supernatural explanation. Scottish philosopher W. R. Sorley presented the following argument:

  1. If morality is objective and absolute, God must exist.
  2. Morality is objective and absolute.
  3. Therefore, God must exist. [10]

Many critics have challenged the second premise of this argument, by offering a biological and sociological account of the development of human morality which suggests that it is neither objective nor absolute. This account, supported by biologist E. O. Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse, proposes that the human experience of morality is a by-product of natural selection, a theory philosopher Mark D. Linville calls evolutionary naturalism. According to the theory, the human experience of moral obligations was the result of evolutionary pressures, which attached a sense of morality to human psychology because it was useful for moral development; this entails that moral values do not exist independently of the human mind. Morality might be better understood as an evolutionary imperative in order to propagate genes and ultimately reproduce. No human society today advocates immorality, such as theft or murder, because it would undoubtedly lead to the end of that particular society and any chance for future survival of offspring. Scottish empiricist David Hume made a similar argument, that belief in objective moral truths is unwarranted and to discuss them is meaningless. [11]

Because evolutionary naturalism proposes an empirical account of morality, it does not require morality to exist objectively; Linville considers the view that this will lead to moral scepticism or antirealism. [12] [13] C. S. Lewis argued that, if evolutionary naturalism is accepted, human morality cannot be described as absolute and objective because moral statements cannot be right or wrong. Despite this, Lewis argued, those who accept evolutionary naturalism still act as if objective moral truths exist, leading Lewis to reject naturalism as incoherent. [14] As an alternative ethical theory, Lewis offered a form of divine command theory which equated God with goodness and treated goodness as an essential part of reality, thus asserting God's existence. [15]

J.C.A. Gaskin challenges the first premise of the argument from moral objectivity, arguing that it must be shown why absolute and objective morality entails that morality is commanded by God, rather than simply a human invention. It could be the consent of humanity that gives it moral force, for example. [8] American philosopher Michael Martin argues that it is not necessarily true that objective moral truths must entail the existence of God, suggesting that there could be alternative explanations: he argues that naturalism may be an acceptable explanation and, even if a supernatural explanation is necessary, it does not have to be God (polytheism is a viable alternative). Martin also argues that a non-objective account of ethics might be acceptable and challenges the view that a subjective account of morality would lead to moral anarchy. [10]

William Lane Craig has argued for this form of the moral argument. [16]

Argument for Conscience

Portrait of John Henry Newman, who used the conscience as evidence of the existence of God John Henry Newman by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt.jpg
Portrait of John Henry Newman, who used the conscience as evidence of the existence of God

Related to the argument from morality is the argument from conscience, associated with eighteenth-century bishop Joseph Butler and nineteenth-century cardinal John Henry Newman. [8] Newman proposed that the conscience, as well as giving moral guidance, provides evidence of objective moral truths which must be supported by the divine. He argued that emotivism is an inadequate explanation of the human experience of morality because people avoid acting immorally, even when it might be in their interests. Newman proposed that, to explain the conscience, God must exist. [17]

British philosopher John Locke argued that moral rules cannot be established from conscience because the differences in people's consciences would lead to contradictions. Locke also noted that the conscience is influenced by "education, company, and customs of the country", a criticism mounted by J. L. Mackie, who argued that the conscience should be seen as an "introjection" of other people into an agent's mind. [18] Michael Martin challenges the argument from conscience with a naturalistic account of conscience, arguing that naturalism provides an adequate explanation for the conscience without the need for God's existence. He uses the example of the internalization by humans of social pressures, which leads to the fear of going against these norms. Even if a supernatural cause is required, he argues, it could be something other than God; this would mean that the phenomenon of the conscience is no more supportive of monotheism than polytheism. [17]

C. S. Lewis argues for the existence of God in a similar way in his book Mere Christianity , but he does not directly refer to it as the argument from morality.

Notes and references

  1. Marty, Elsa J. (2010-08-19). A Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 154. ISBN   9781441111975 . Retrieved 2 December 2012. C.S. Lewis offered a popularized version of such an argument in a series of talks for the BBC during World War II, later published in his Mere Christianity Lewis argued that conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver.
  2. Allison, Gregg (2011-03-29). Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. Zondervan. p. 207. ISBN   9780310230137 . Retrieved 2 December 2012. In his highly influential book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis revived the moral argument for the existence of God. By moving from the fact of human quarrels and the moral law that these presuppose, to the reality of God as the moral Lawgiver whose law people break, Lewis set forth a foundation not only for the existence of God, but for the message that "the Christians are talking about.... The tell you how the demands of this law, which you and I cannot meet, have been met on our behalf, how God himself becomes a man to save a man from the disapproval of God."
  3. Byrne, Peter (May 25, 2004). "Moral Arguments for the Existence of God". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  4. 1 2 Byrne, Peter (May 25, 2004). "Moral Arguments for the Existence of God". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  5. 1 2 Byrne, Peter (May 25, 2004). "Moral Arguments for the Existence of God". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  6. 1 2 Oppy 2006, pp. 372–373
  7. Guyer 2006, p. 234
  8. 1 2 3 Parkinson 1988, p. 344
  9. Everitt 2003, p. 137
  10. 1 2 Martin 1992, pp. 213–214
  11. Craig & Moreland 2011, p. 393
  12. Craig & Moreland 2011, pp. 393–394
  13. Boniolo & De Anna 2006, pp. 24–25
  14. McSwain & Ward 2010, pp. 110–111
  15. McSwain & Ward 2010, p. 112
  17. 1 2 Martin 1992, p. 214
  18. Parkinson 1988, pp. 344–345


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