VT Debate–The Moral Argument

by Max Andrews

The following is David Baggett’s moral argument* for the existence of a perfectly moral person I used in the VT debate on the existence of God. (I highly recommend Baggett’s book co-authored with Jerry Walls Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality.) This version of the moral argument is an abductive version. I believe this argument, when used in an abductive form, is the strongest form of the argument. You’ll usually see it in a deductive form, a la William Lane Craig. For my method of argumentation please see: VT–My Method of Argumentation.

  1. There are objective axiological/moral facts that obtain.
  2. Either the world alone or the world and a perfectly moral person best explain these facts.
  3. It is the case that the world and a perfectly moral person best explain these facts.
  4. Therefore, the world and a perfectly moral person best explain these facts.

In essence, it seems that there are objective moral facts and this asks the question, “What’s the best explanation for these facts?”

Premise 1 assumes moral realism. Some actions really are objectively morally abhorrent. By objective I mean that the truth value of such moral facts are true regardless of whether or not anyone recognizes them to be true. For instance, raping and torturing children for pleasure is wrong. The massacre here on campus, which took place nearly five years ago was utterly wicked and evil. Teenage girls being trafficked around the world for sex is abominable. One ought to love others. One ought not to rape and murder.

Now, what is the best explanation for these facts? Well, there are two options for the best explanation. The first is the natural world alone. The world can account for certain moral facts but natural explanations will ultimately be insufficient in explanatory scope and power. It does seem to be the case that the natural order can account for some things due to certain features of this world:

  • Intersubjective moral agreement
  • Satisfactions of morality (we feel good when we do good)
  • Creatures with conative, cognitive, and affective capacities as ours
  • Rational apprehension of moral truths
  • Creatures with essential properties we have

The world is metaphysically rich and robust. Human social requirements and/or motivation theory get the ball rolling but it cannot account for it with complete sufficiency. Attempts to ground such axiological facts in socio-biological evolution will ultimately be ineffecient. For an axiological fact to be objective it must be true in all possible worlds. The fact must be necessary. If we were to rewind the film of evolution and allow it to play out again it’s certainly possible that natural selection acting on random mutations would have brought about a different biological landscape from what we observe today. Additionally, purely naturalistic theories suffer the is-ought problem. Where do obligations come from? Deontology, or duty-based ethics, cannot be accounted for in a purely naturalistic axiology. If ought implies can and one is naturally determined to act contrary to the ought how proficient can such a view be in accounting for these facts? Also, attempts to ground deontic ethics in Platonic terms merely affirms that these facts obtain but it doesn’t explain anything.

In Sam Harris’ recent books, The Moral Landscape and Free Will, he has attempted to redefine normative statements. He equates human well-being with the good and that which does not contribute to human well-being is not the good. In The Moral Landscape Harris states,

“Questions about values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures… I want to develop a science of human flourishing.”[1]

The problem here is equating human flourishing with the good. Why is that? Why not the well-being of cats, dogs, or sponges? Such attempts to ground objective axiomatic facts leaves one with specieism—a bias and special treatment for the homo sapiens sapiens species and a suppression of other species. Certainly science can account for how we come to know certain axiomatic facts but it cannot account for their grounding. I’m not saying human well-being isn’t good since good categorically encompasses human well-being but such an account for objective morality does not satisfy the demands of a robust axiology—namely, the problem of deontology. Additionally, how could one know what increases the well-being of conscious creatures? This suffers the same problems as utilitarian ethics. Surely, it could be the case that something dreadful, awful, and painful could produce something good in the future, especially if this is based in the pains of evolution. The problem is that something bad now may not be viewed as maximizing human well-being and thus, may be considered bad when it would really produce the long-term effect of the betterment of the species.

The other option is the world in conjunction with a morally perfect person. This world conjoined with a perfectly moral person makes a fuller case and provides the better explanation of the full range of moral facts in need of explanation. Such an explanation describes a world that has the texture, depth, and thickness it does and is able to exist in the first place because it was imbued with value and meaning by this morally perfect person. It must be a person because a person, a mind, is the only thing that can issue imperatives. A combination of persons, or a social-theory, doesn’t work because persons are equal in imperative actions. Thus, there must be a person that has the authority to issue such denotic imperatives and ground these moral facts.


*I want to give a special thanks to Dr. Baggett for working with me and helping me prepare this argument for the debate.

[1] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (New York: Free Press, 2010), 7.

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9 Responses to “VT Debate–The Moral Argument”

  1. I know you say that they are axiomatic but how did you intend to defend against the die hard nihilist?

    • If someone was going to challenge P1 then I’d have to push examples of moral situations. You’d just need to press these examples like, “Don’t you believe it’s wrong to rape children and sell them for labor and sex?” Stuff like that. I’d argue that moral knowledge is intuitive or basic beliefs.

  2. Au contraire, John Quin, nihilists die easily.

  3. Morality is a normative domain. That is, it’s a system of rules from which you can generate ‘ought’ or ‘should’ claims. So for example, from the normative domain of epistemology you can claim that you ought not believe two claims that contradict each other because it would be epistemically illogical. From the domain of chess you can claim that you ought not move a knight one space forward because it would be illegal. From the domain of morality you can claim that you ought not harm others because it would be wrong.

    So the ‘is-ought problem’ isn’t really a problem, it just makes any ‘ought’ statements subjective if you don’t accept the normative domain. For example, it is objective within the domain of logic to say “you shouldn’t conclude P from not P”. But this doesn’t stop people from doing it. And if a person does conclude p from not p then one of two things is happening here: They either don’t understand logic, or understand it and choose to not care about it. Logic, every normative domain, is not self-justifying, and therefore it is escapable. This means no one is bound to treat it as objective. Similarly, the addition of the concept ‘God’ to the domain of morality doesn’t make it any more self-justifying, inescapable, or binding.

    In summary: the fact that you can respond to any kind atheistic moral system with the question “why should I be moral?” isn’t any more of a problem to atheistic morality than the question is to theistic morality.

    • Then you’re just really denying the first premise, which I would simply argue that there are objective obligations. One ought not to rape children. That’s not subjective.

  4. I would think that obligations carry no weight in a hypothetical world of just rocks and no living things. If that’s sufficient to make me a moral subjectivist, so be it. But would you at least agree that obligation entails reason for action? When someone fails to respond to an obligation, they’re failing to respond to a reason. Otherwise how would you rationally criticize someone for failing to meet one of their objective obligations?

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