I strongly feel that it is important to submit one’s ideas and hypothesis to those that are hostile or unsympathetic toward one’s views .  The atheists with whom I have debated have been hostile (in the academic sense) and unsympathetic.  Doing so has required me to look back and realize I was defending an argument I had not initially presented.  Despite my best efforts, it seems I followed a red herring.   I believe part of the reason was that I was conflating two different arguments  which were:

1)An argument against Dr. Sam Harris’ book, “The Moral Landscape“, which assumes that objective morals exist.

2)The existence of objective morals as an argument for the existence of God.

Here is what the initial argument was:

“First, we must clarify the argument. The moral argument, in its simplest form is, that if God exists, then we have a firm foundation for objective moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. It must be clear that the argument is not whether God does or does not exist.”

Here is what I have been in fact defending (and erroneously in an earlier response I said was the argument):

1) If objective morals and values exist, they are grounded in God – thus God exists.

2) Objective morals exist.

3) Conclusion: God exists.

In reviewing the arguments presented in the actual posts, they were arguments defending the first assertion.  Looking at the arguments I made to the responses to the posts, I was in fact defending the second set of premises.   All of this made things a bit confusing and perhaps non-cogent.

For now. I will be defending the second argument.  The reason being is that many of the respondents, unlike Dr. Sam Harris, don’t believe there are objective morals.  It is perhaps a more prodigious argument –  but it is for sure more interesting argument.   The unfortunate thing is that some of the points presented in the original posts themselves, are arguments that only work to defend the original argument (the argument against Sam Harris, which assumes objective morals exist).

If you have not read Part I, click here

If you have not read Part II click here

Last time we examined the foundation for objective moral values and duties as well as the fallacy of the naturalistic explanation for objective moral values and duties.  In this post, we will examine the difference between moral ontology and semantics as well as whether one can argue for the existence of evil if God does not exist.

Moral Ontology vs. Semantics

One must not confuse the moral ontology with moral semantics. The phrase, “If religion is not true, then words like good and evil, or right and wrong, would have no meaning,” is confusing moral ontology with moral semantics. Moral ontology asks, “What is the foundation for objective moral values and duties?” Moral semantics asks, “What is the meaning of moral terms.” No semantical claim, in this argument, is being made that “good” means something like “commanded by God.” The argument is for moral ontology – what is the ground or foundation for moral values and duties? The following will add some clarification:

Think of light. Light is a certain visible wavelength within the electromagnetic spectrum. But obviously that isn’t the meaning of the word light. People knew how to use the word light long before they discovered its physical nature. And people certainly knew the difference between light and darkness long before the physics of light. Similarly, we can know the meaning of moral terms like good and evil or right and wrong without being aware that the good is grounded in God ontologically; once again, that is the argument being defended.

Let’s ponder another question: “Does atheism provide a sound foundation for moral objective duties?” Duty has to do with moral obligation or prohibition – what I ought or ought not to do. Here, the reviewers of Dr. Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, have been merciless in pounding the attempt to provide a naturalistic account for moral obligation. Two problems stand out:

1. Natural science tells us only what is, not what ought to be the case. As philosopher Jerry Fodor has written, “Science is about facts, not norms. It might tell us how we are, but it wouldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. In particular, it cannot tell us that we have a moral obligation to take actions which are conducive to human flourishing.” If there is no God, what foundation remains for objective moral values and duties?

On the naturalistic view, human beings are just animals and animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it doesn’t murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her, but it doesn’t rape her. None of these actions are forbidden or obligatory. There is no moral dimension to these actions. So if God does not exist, why do we think we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes these obligations upon us? From where do they come? It is very hard to see why they would be anything more than a subjective impression ingrained into us by societal and parental conditioning. On the atheistic view, certain actions such as rape and incest may not be biologically and socially advantageous and so in the course of human development have become taboo (socially unacceptable behavior). But that does absolutely nothing to prove that such acts are really wrong. Such behavior goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. On the atheistic view, the rapist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably – the moral equivalent of Lady Gaga.

If there is no moral lawgiver, then there is no objective moral law. Moral obligations or prohibitions arise in response to imperatives from a competent authority. For example, if a policeman tells you to pull over, then because of his authority, you are legally obligated to pull over. If some random stranger tells you to pull over, you are not legally obligated to do so. In the absence of God, what authority is there to issue moral duties or prohibitions? There is none on atheism; therefore, there are no moral imperatives for us to obey. In the absence of God, there is no moral imperative or prohibition that characterizes our lives. In particular, we are not morally obligated to promote the flourishing of conscious creatures. The “is/ought” distinction is fatal to atheism. If there is no objective moral law, then we have no objective moral duties. Thus the atheistic view lacks any source for objective moral duties.

2. The second problem that stands out with the naturalistic account for moral obligation deals with “ought implies can.” A person is not morally responsible for an action he is unable to avoid. For example, if someone shoves you into another person, you are not responsible for bumping into him; you had no choice. Some would say all our actions are causally determined – that there is no free will. Dr. Harris not only rejects libertarian accounts of free will, but also compatabilistic accounts of freedom. If there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything. In the end, Dr. Harris admits this at the endnote of his book. He states, “Moral responsibility is a social construct, not an objective reality. In neuro-scientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other for the actions they perform.” This thorough-going determinism spells the end of any hope of possibility of objective moral duties because on this world view, we have no control over what we do. Thus on this view, there is no force of objective moral duties because there is no moral lawgiver and no possibility for objective moral duties because there is no free will. Therefore, on this view, despite protestations (a solemn declaration or avowal), right and wrong do not really exist. So the naturalistic view fails to provide a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. Hence, if God does not exist, we do not have a sound foundation for morality, which is the second contention. Atheism thus sits very ill with ethical theory.

Does Evil Exist?

What about evil?  If objective values and duties do exist, then it follows that evil exists.  It then follows that the existence of evil is an argument for,not against, the existence of God. Furthermore, the atheist runs into a problem with calling things evil. The atheist cannot do that. When they do, they are just borrowing religious language.

To quote Arthur Leff, “All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have….Only if
ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless: Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot-and General Custer too-have earned salvation. Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned. There is in the world such a thing as evil. [All together now:] Says who? God help us.”
(Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository; Faculty Scholarship Series Yale Law School Faculty Scholarship; 1-1-1979; Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law; Arthur A. Leff; Yale Law School)

Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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