Moral Argument II: Non-Naturalistic Ethics

| | Comments (6)

This is the the twenty-fourth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I looked at why naturalistic foundations of ethics seem unsatisfying to many people. In this post we'll now turn to what non-naturalistic accounts of ethics can do and why some take theism to be the best account of the foundations of morality.

How does this become an argument for God? What can someone say about morality if moral truths go beyond the natural world? It doesn't immediate show that theism is true. A few possible accounts of morality remain:

A) Moral truths are beyond nature but have no explanation.
B) Moral truths are beyond nature but necessary. Their explanation lies within themselves.
C) God's nature explains moral truths.

Moral truths have no explanation:

The first view is that moral truths go beyond the natural order. Science can't tell us anything about them. However, this view doesn't have anything additional beyond nature to ground these truths. They're true on their own as abstract principles, part of the very fabric of the universe, but there isn't anything that makes them true. They're just true, although they didn't have to be true. Some see this view as having an advantage over theism because it's simpler and admits to fewer entities.

One problem with this view is that it requires some truths that have no explanation, which not everyone will want to do. Some will say we've explained morality through having moral truths beyond the natural world. However, we haven't explained why there are any moral truths to begin with. So is it really an explanation?

Moral truths are necessary:

Some philosophers believe moral truths are necessarily true. They couldn't have been false. There couldn't have been different ones. They are true because of their nature, just as with mathematical truths. If this is true, then moral truths mean naturalism is false, but they don't provide the basis of an argument for God.

On this view, there is an explanation for moral truths. Their explanation lies in their very nature. Some may wonder why moral truths should be necessary. Doesn't it seem as if there could be a world without morality? What about moral truths makes them have to be true?

Even if we're satisfied with necessary moral truths, there's another argument for the existence of God that a theist may try to offer. Doesn't it seem strange that there happen to be beings that fall under the morality that these necessary truths are about? These moral truths are true of necessity, but there didn't have to be any beings that they govern. The chances seem really low that moral truths would be out there of necessity and that some beings would happen to come along who are the right sort of being for these moral truths to apply to. So it's surprising enough that a theist may turn this into a moral version of the design argument. This seeming coincidence calls out for explanation, and a designer would explain it.

God's nature explains moral truths:

If that argument is convincing, then someone will want to move to theism anyway. That requires making some move beyond just saying moral truths are necessary. Even if the sort-of-design argument in the last paragraph isn't a good argument, one might wonder what about moral truths would make them necessary truths. Explaining morality in terms of God may then be the most plausible option. The moral truths may then be necessary but only because God is. God couldn't have failed to exist, and the moral truths come from God. A world without God wouldn't have had moral truths, but there couldn't have been such a world, because God is a necessary being. That's why some see this as an argument for the existence of God rather than just an argument against naturalism.

In the next post, I'll look at an objection to any appeal to God as an explanation for morality.


It seems pretty clear to me that any bedrock moral principles must be metaphysically necessary. In particular, it seems that the moral facts supervene on the natural facts. As I put it in the linked post, "There is no possible world that is exactly like our own one in all [natural/] factual respects, but where it was 'morally right' of Hitler to carry out the Holocaust."

And it's not like it's a coincidence that moral norms apply to us. As norms of practical reason, they would apply to any rational agents. Do you mean to suggest that it's "surprising enough" that there are rational beings, that we should turn to theism to explain it? That seems weird. I mean, you can always reiterate the old "fine-tuning argument", I suppose, but it seems a bit strange to bring it up in this context. The argument doesn't really have anything especially to do with ethics.

Wait a minute. If they supervene on natural facts and are also necessary, doesn't that mean the natural facts they depend on must be necessary? I'm not sure there are any necessary moral facts.

I think someone offering this argument should agree that moral facts are necessary but insist that they don't depend on anything natural but rather on God's nature, which of course is going to have to be necessary if God exists necessarily. So it will still come out true that there's no possible world where it's morally right to do what Hitler did, but it's not (at root) because of anything in the natural world. That's why this isn't like the most extreme version of a divine command theory. (See the next post on that issue.)

Do you mean to suggest that it's "surprising enough" that there are rational beings, that we should turn to theism to explain it?

Yes. I'm suggesting that if moral truths are necessary, a particular kind of design argument is available. It is a sort of fine-tuning argument, and it depends entirely on a claim that arises with that particular response to this argument.

We should take care not to conflate the bedrock moral principles - which are necessary but conditional in form - with the particular moral facts. The latter arise by applying the necessary bedrock principles to our contingent empirical situation; they are hence contingent themselves. (I take it "Hitler was evil" is a moral fact, but it's surely contingent: he could have acted differently, after all! What's necessary is that, given how he in fact acted, he was evil.)

(A technical point: I'm just using "A supervenes on B" to mean that you can't have a change in A without a change in B. If A is necessary, then the supervenience claim is trivially true -- you can't have a change in A, period -- no matter if B is contingent. [Don't confuse the claim with its converse! Changes in B don't imply a change in A!] So the short answer to your question is "no". But the earlier point about the principle vs. particular fact conflation is more important.)

Anyway, do you have an argument against the kind of "moral rationalism" that sees the bedrock moral principles as being truths of reason (like mathematics)? It doesn't seem to me that you've really addressed this alternative view at all -- which leaves a great gaping hole in your argument from exclusion.

"I'm suggesting that if moral truths are necessary, a particular kind of design argument is available."

I don't see it. The existence of rational beings doesn't depend on moral truths. If it's the former you're surprised by, why are you talking about ethics? What you really need, I take it, is to hold that it's surprising that moral norms apply to the kinds of beings we are (i.e. rational beings). But that's not surprising at all!

Yes, I was intending to express the proposition you expressed more explicitly by "given how Hitler in fact acted, he was evil".

On your account of supervenience, anything necessary supervenes on anything, so of course moral truths will supervene on natural facts if they are necessary. That strikes me as a good counterexample to that kind of definition, though. On that account, God (if God exists) supervenes on physical facts. That strikes me as totally counterintuitive and not what we want in an account of supervenience.

I think the best argument against moral truths being truths of reason is that there's such fundamental disagreement on key issues. Does a human organism at a very undeveloped stage has full moral status, no moral status, or something in between? What about animals at various levels of complexity? Do unthinking things like plants have moral status independent of what we assign them? What about inanimate things like beautiful landscapes or works of art or collective things like species or ecosystems? Are consequences the only relevant factors for moral evaluation, or are there important moral principles independent of results? When we do evaluate consequences, should we maximize or satisfice (or both if that's possible)? What counts as the best life, and if wellbeing is part of that what contributes toward wellbeing?

The fact that there is such significant disagreement about these questions even among philosophers who have made all the relevant distinctions to be sure they agree on what they mean suggests to me that these are not truths of reason. Either that or a whole lot of people are engaging in seriously wishful thinking to avoid coming to moral conclusions that they don't want to have to follow.

I'm not sure what your last point is. Why does the existence of rational beings have to depend on moral truths? I'm saying that if there are necessary moral truths then it's mighty convenient that there are the rational beings that they apply to. That's not saying that the existence of rational beings depends on moral truths. It's saying the opposite, that they are unrelated, and thus it's an interesting coincidence that the claims are true and, independently, beings exist who must conform to them. That seems to increase the likelihood that someone intended beings to come about to conform to those moral truths in the same way that other special elements of rationality increase the likelihood of rational beings' being intended given the unlikely nature or rational beings to begin with. This is just a special case of the teleological argument, then, but its starting point is from observing truths that exist that are not dependent on rational beings. The fact that they are moral truths, as you point out, isn't playing much role in the design argument itself. But it's what gets us to that argument to begin with.

I'm puzzled by your middle paragraphs. You rightly note that many issues in moral philosophy are not obvious. But how can you infer from this that they're not truths of reason? "A priori" doesn't mean "easy"!

This is less important, but on the last point, you say, "if there are necessary moral truths then it's mighty convenient that there are [ ] rational beings that they apply to." But it's not as if there could be rational beings that the norms don't apply to. So a universe with "morality + rational beings" is no more surprising than the mere fact that rational beings exist at all. So if we don't already see the latter fact as problematic or surprising, then adding morality into the picture shouldn't change that.

I guess what you're wanting to suggest is that it's fortunate (in some sense) that there are rational agents for the sake of moral norms. But the argument seems a bit weird to me. I mean, life is good, and it's great that we exist and all, but I don't know whether the fact that we fall under moral norms adds any independent value to the universe? Maybe rational thought is an intrinsic good, but again, I don't see that considering morality should lead us to see the existence of rational agents as any more surprising or problematic than we already thought it was.

It's not just that they're not easy. It's that we can begin only from somewhere that doesn't seem to have anything to do with reason. Our fundamental presuppositions cannot be argued for on the basis of anything else. You admit that it's not easy, but I'm not sure how it could be hard either. Hard requires that there's some task that's difficult. I can't see what the task is. As far as I can tell, some fundamental premises just seem true to some people and false to others, and yet both can't be true.

You're right that there couldn't be rational beings that the truths apply to. But there could be moral truths with no rational beings, which was the alternative I was envisioning. I'm not asserting that this is an extremely strong design argument, but I do think it counts for something.

It's not that the fact that we fall under moral norms that adds value to the universe. It's the fact that we exist that adds value to the universe. There are these moral truths, and they're necessary. There's no comparing that situation and the impossible alternative. But the fact that these rational beings are here, while not surprising given that we already exist, still seems to me to be a little surprising if all we knew was that there are moral truths that didn't have to apply to anything.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04