Moral Argument from Practical Reason

C. Stephen Layman is an American philosopher who has developed an interesting version of the moral argument. I’ll give his summary of the argument and then look at how each of the premises can be defended.

  1. “In every actual case one has most reason to do what is morally required.

  2. If there is no God and no life after death, then there are cases in which morality requires that one make a great sacrifice that confers relatively modest benefits (or prevents relatively modest harms).

  3. If in a given case one must make a great sacrifice in order to do what is morally required but the sacrifice confers relatively modest benefits (or prevents relatively modest harms), then one does not have most reason to do what is morally required.”[i]

  4. “Therefore, if there is no God and no life after death, then, in some cases, one does not have most reason to do what is morally required.”[ii]

Premise 1

Premise 1 simply means that if someone is morally obligated to do that thing, then, of all relevant reasons, the “balance of reasons favors performing that act.”[iii] This should be fairly reasonable, especially for atheists who believe that morality is fundamentally rational. If morality is rational, then every moral action should be the most rational action one could take in the circumstances. Otherwise, you would have to believe that morality is non-rational (i.e. it can be either rational or irrational and reason cannot tell us what action is moral). In addition, as Layman says, “If one does not always have most reason to do what is morally required then why should one be moral?”[iv] If I face a decision, and I have most compelling reasons to do X, but Y is the morally obligated action, then the moral action becomes irrational. You might say that the moral reason is always the strongest reason and so there cannot be an occasion where moral reasons are outweighed by other reasons. However, this would require appealing to the strength of one’s moral intuitions and not to the strength of rational intuitions. You can’t appeal to your moral intuitions in this case, since we are not trying to determine how strongly moral or immoral an action is, but how rational it is. Appealing to moral intuitions only says something about the morality of the action, not about its rationality. Our rational intuitions, such as our intuitions that certain implications follow logically from premises, is what is relevant in determining which course of action is most rational. You can’t establish that your moral intuitions have priority by appealing to your moral intuitions. That is circular.

Premise 2

Layman defends Premise 2 by appealing to a case in which a person (Ms Poore) considers whether to steal from someone. Ms. Poore is living in abject poverty and by stealing the money, she can obtain many good things, both for her and her family. She knows that it is unlikely that she will be caught and that the person she steals from is very rich and won’t be much harmed by the theft. If she doesn’t steal the money, she will probably live in poverty for the rest of her life.[v] Now, it is morally wrong for Ms. Poore to steal the money, but if there is no God and no afterlife, the harm prevented by her not stealing the money is very small, and the benefits to her of stealing the money are very large.

Premise 3

Premise 3 is implicitly supported by the defenses already proposed for premise 1 and 2. We saw that other reasons can outweigh moral reasons and that there are cases ( such as that of Ms. Poore) where she has overriding reason to do what is morally wrong. We can support premise 3 with the common sense principle that “it is always and necessarily prudent to act so as to promote one’s long-term interests.”[vi] It is important to give reasons as to why the existence of God and life after death means that there would be no conflicts between prudence and morality (or rationality and morality). Here Layman contends that it never in “one’s long-term best interests to alienate oneself from God” and to act immorally is to alienate oneself from God. The existence of heaven and hell further strengthen the notion that, if God exists, there will be no conflicts between rationality and morality, or between prudence and morality.


It is never in your best interests to denigrate your moral character.

One might say that it is never in one’s best interest to damage one’s character, because a deterioration in one’s moral character will, in the long-term, lead to a great deal of suffering. Nevertheless, one can sometimes act immorally, in what one regards as a special case[vii], without this affecting ones character (which represents one’s habitual way of doing things). You can act immorally once, without this becoming a pattern of conduct or habit.

“Virtue is its own reward”

Layman responds to this by saying that even if morality is valuable in itself, it is implausible to suggest that it is the only thing of value. Layman imagines a case with two people, the one morally mediocre but popular and well loved, the other morally rigorous, but despised and falsely imprisoned. Layman then asks us, “Leaving God out of the picture for the moment, which of these two people is better off? Which is more fulfilled, assuming there is no God?… And note that even if virtue is of value for its own sake, it isn’t the only thing of value.”[viii] You might respond that moral value may not be the only value, but it is the one, which always has the highest priority. This takes us back to the defense of premise 1. The only reason you would think that is by appeal to moral intuitions, which we’ve already said, cannot override other reasons by itself. It is tantamount to circular argumentation. You can’t establish that your moral intuitions have priority by appealing to your moral intuitions. Every reason has a claim to priority. Moral reasons are one kind of reason among many. In other words, morality is isolated and disjointed from other reasons in an atheist universe.

[i] C. Stephen Layman, “God and the Moral Order,” In Ethical Theory: An Anthology, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007) 260 – 261

[ii] Ibid., 262

[iii] Ibid., 260

[iv] Ibid., 260

[v] Ibid., 260

[vi] Ibid., 261

[vii] Ibid., 262

[viii] Ibid., 261