The following is an argument David Baggett developed, which argues for the existence of a perfectly moral person. I used this 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. I believe this argument is better and I’d like to see it used more often. (See below for my method behind abduction.)
The advantage of this argument is that nature is included in the argument for the morally perfect person. Usually it is depicted as nature vs. God (or a morally perfect person). That argument, I believe, gives too much to the naturalist. Here’s the argument:
- There are objective axiological/moral facts that obtain.
- Either the world alone or the world and a perfectly moral person best explain these facts.
- It is the case that the world and a perfectly moral person best explain these facts.
- 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 LandscapeHarris states,
“Questions about values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures… I want to develop a science of human flourishing.”
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 axiological 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 axiological 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.
For more information on related issues that arise from ethics and the moral argument please see the following posts:
- A Defense of Divine Command Theory
- The Types of Commands in Divine Command Theory
- Non-Standard Semantics and Divine Command Theory
- The Arbitrariness Objection to Divine Command Theory
- The Contingency of Commands
- What if God Commanded Your to do Something Wrong?
Edit 11/29/12: Whenever we are considering two competing hypotheses, an observation counts as evidence in favor of the hypothesis under which the observation has the highest probability.
The Likelihood Principle of Confirmation theory states as follows. Let h1 and h2 be two be competing hypothesis (in this case the existence of X and ~X, with X being a first cause, fine-tuner, etc.). According to the Likelihood Principle, an observation e counts as evidence in favor of hypothesis h1 over h2 if the observation is more probable under h1 than h2. Thus, e counts in favor of h1 over h2 if P(e|h1) > P(e|h2), where P(e|h1) and P(e|h2) depict a conditional probability of e on h1 and h2, respectively. The degree to which the evidence counts in favor of one hypothesis over another is proportional to the degree to which e is more probable under h1 than h2: particularly, it is proportional to P(e|h1)/P(e|h2) . The Likelihood Principle seems to be sound under all interpretations of probability. This form is concerned with epistemic probability.
The Likelihood Principle can be derived from the so-called odds form of Bayes’ Theorem, which also allows one to give a precise statement to the degree to which evidence counts in favor of one hypothesis over another. The odds form of Bayes’ Theorem is P(h1|e)/P(h2|e) = [P(h1)/P(h2)] x [P(e|h1)/P(e|h2)]. The Likelihood Principle, however, does not require the applicability or truth of Bayes’ Theorem and can be given independent justification by appeal to our normal epistemic practices. See Robin Collins, “The Teleological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology Eds. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2009), 205 for further information on this method.
This is why I argue for a morally perfect person instead of God. A cumulative case is needed for that. That begs the next question. So, what about the problem of dwindling probabilities in a cumulative case? When combining probabilities the end product is smaller (.5 multiplied by .5 = .25). This issue concerns the restricted conjunction rule for probability: P (A and B) = P (A) x P (B) (whenA and B are independent). It also appears in the general conjunction rule of probability: P (A and B) = P (A) x P (B given A). When using a probability calculus the only time you would add probabilities is in disjunctive calculus (.25+ .25 = .5). This occurs in the restricted disjunction rule for probability and the general disjunction rule for probability, respectively: P (A or B) = P (A) + P (B) (when A and B are mutually exclusive), and P (A or B) = P (A)+ P (B) – P (A and B). Now, in order to avoid the problem of dwindling probabilities the conjunction of arguments must be used as one probability calculus. Even if these arguments weren’t used in the cumulative case form the converse probabilities would make the probability for the non-existence of God congruently smaller.
*I want to give a special thanks to Dr. Baggett for working with me and helping me prepare this argument for the debate.
 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (New York: Free Press, 2010), 7.