Argument from Moral Epistemology

Ted Bundy was a notorious serial killer.

We all know that we have certain moral intuitions, powerful ones, which tell us that certain things are wrong. We can’t readily explain why we feel strongly that murder or cruelty is wrong, but we know it is. The argument from moral epistemology is not an argument that atheists don’t have adequate moral intuitions, but that they are not rationally justified in believing that their moral intuitions are accurate representations of the moral reality. Let’s summarize the argument.

  1. If God does not exist, we can’t know that our moral intuitions are accurate representations of moral reality.

  2. We can know that our moral intuitions are accurate representations of reality.

  3. Therefore, God exists.

It is important first to notice the differences between this argument and the argument from metaethics. The euthyphro dilemma does not apply to this argument, because it is not about how morality is metaphysically grounded. It is about whether we are justified in thinking our specific moral intuitions are accurate. The argument from moral epistemology would still apply even if it were established that God could not ground morality metaphysically.

Premise 1

Obviously, the controversial premise here will be premise 1. Why think this is true? Atheists have every reason to believe, and no reason to believe otherwise, that moral intuitions are constituted by sociobiological processes. If atheism, especially naturalistic atheism, is true, then the highest, most complex realities are social-biological processes, which means that our moral intuitions must be accounted for within this framework. If our moral intuitions are structured simply based on what society finds useful or what aids survival and reproduction, then we have good reason to distrust our moral intuitions. Why? We know that what is socially efficient and what aids our survival and reproduction is not necessarily moral. We know that what is socially useful and what aids survival may make murder and other things we know to be wrong, right. This means that social- biological accounts of how our moral intuitions are constituted cannot be true or we cannot trust our moral intuitions, if we are convinced that it is true. But, you may ask, how can we know that certain things that social-biological systems encourage are not moral unless our moral intuitions are accurate? The point of the argument is that we can trust our moral intuitions because God exists. Think of the argument as what logicians call a reductio ad absurdum. That is, we show that a view ( naturalistic atheism) is wrong by showing that it implies a contradiction. In this case, it implies that moral intuitions should be a certain way, and we know that it is not. In this way, it’s similar to Alvin Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.”

Atheists will typically claim that moral intuitions are epistemically basic. We do not require evidence for thinking that moral intuitions are correct, but this doesn’t mean that our moral intuitions are not vulnerable to defeaters. My contention is that atheism itself provides such a defeater, because, as we’ve seen, naturalistic atheism provides us with good reason to doubt our moral intuitions. What about non-naturalistic atheism? If atheism is the denial that there is God or anything like it ( including a supernatural realm), then atheism is identical to naturalism. “Supernatural” simply means beyond the natural. So if atheism means that there is nothing supernatural, then atheism is identical with naturalism. This means that naturalism is simply atheism, and so what is incompatible with naturalism is incompatible with atheism. Atheism might be more modestly construed as simply the denial of supernatural persons, and so not the denial of the existence of something beyond the natural. For example, someone like Thomas Nagel believes that mind is a fundamental feature of our world. However, if mind exists generally, independently of human minds that seems to me to clearly imply a person. Minds are normally personal. Perhaps Nagel simply means that human minds exist but are not fully explainable in terms nature. However, human minds must have an explanation, because human minds could have failed to exist (they are contingent). Also, human minds clearly began to exist, so they require a cause as well.  And if their explanation and cause is not naturalistic or fully naturalistic, the most natural explanation is that they are the products of a greater mind (this line of reasoning is more detailed under the Argument from Consciousness). In other words, Thomas Nagel’s position seems to me to imply theism. So I won’t treat it as a form of atheism here.

But let’s look at a typical atheistic account of moral epistemology ( even though atheism provides a defeater for our moral intuitions). For example, David Hume, the well-known (and overrated) English empiricist defends something like the following account. Moral perception is analogous to the perception of colour. If something is red “it would look red to a normal perceiver under standard lighting conditions.”[i]  In this view, slave owners “can continue to feel moral approval of slavery only as long as they are able to convince themselves, for example, that slaves are better off under slavery and that an impartial observer who knew all the facts would also approve.”[ii] This seems false, however. What about those people who actually experience the suffering of slavery but still subject others to slavery? Historically, there have been many people like this and it seems unreasonable to suppose that all of them were psychopathic or really felt a prickling of the conscience. But let us suppose for the sake of argument that all of them were psychopaths who do not have moral intuitions that the rest of us have. Why think their (lack) of moral intuitions are wrong while our moral intuitions are right? Is it simply because they are in the minority and we are in the majority? Popularity is not an argument. If atheism is true, then we have no reason to think that the human nature that normally obtains is normative. That is, we have no reason to think that the human nature that normally or in the majority of cases obtains is the way things ought to be. Since moral intuitions are a part of human nature, we thus have no reason to suppose that our moral intuitions, even if they are in the majority ( which they are often are not), are the moral intuitions that we ought to have. So, atheism generally, and especially naturalism, gives us good reason to doubt our moral intuitions (which means that atheism is a defeater for our moral intuitions). On atheism, there is no non-circular way to say that the psychopath’s lack of moral intuitions is inferior to the presence of moral intuitions in non-psychopathic people.

Atheists argue against religion from inconsistent revelations. There are so many different religions – why think any particular one is true? Whatever gives rise to religious revelations cannot be trusted because it gives us inconsistent results. But based on this same reasoning one should disbelieve most of what we believe to be right intuitively. Very few moral rules that we take as incontrovertible in the West are universal. The notion of human rights is very recent. Racial equality, gender equality, and most especially gay rights, are not even close to being universal, and indeed, were nowhere to be found in the world, until the last century ( even though homo sapiens have existed for at least 100 000 years). There seems even to be genuine differences in moral intuition within societies. Of course, there are some basic moral universals, such as prohibitions against theft, murder and incest. These universals are not nearly enough to sustain the moral concepts that we take for granted in the West. But even if all moral concepts were universal and there was mostly agreement across the world in terms of what constitutes morality, this would not show that moral intuitions are justified on atheism anymore than a world where everybody likes vanilla ice cream and abhor chocolate would show that there was something objectively right or normative about vanilla.

Why does God Solve the Problem?

How does theism solve this problem? If a good God exists, especially the God of Christian theism who takes an interest in the moral character of human beings and punishes and rewards them based on moral or immoral behaviour, then this God would not allow us to be mostly deceived with regard to the content of morality. If God is good, it means that he will not deceive human beings, and if he wants human beings to live in a good way, he will especially want them to have the correct information about morality. Thus, we have good reason both to regard our moral intuitions as accurate or mostly accurate and to regard the psychopath’s lack of moral intuitions as being wrong.

[i] Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) 44

[ii] Ibid., 43