Some people believe that God is required or morality will no longer be justified. In particular, God has to exist or “nothing really matters.” Plato and many Christians agree that morality requires a foundation: The Forms or God. Either there is an ideal (Form) of the person that we must try to emulate, or God is the ultimate source of perfection that we must try to emulate. Without the Forms or God, supposedly there would be no intrinsic value. It is true that we want morality to be based on reality. We don’t want morality to be merely delusional or “just a matter of taste.” However, I will argue that the reality described by science seems to be sufficient to explain how intrinsic values can exist. (i.e. We don’t need a transcendent reality in order for something to “really matter.”) Pain seems to be bad and giving people an aspirin to help them avoid pain makes perfect sense, even if God doesn’t exist.
I will divide this post in the following sections:
- Plato’s Forms
- The world of natural science
- Now what?
What are intrinsic values?
The question is not, “Will we despise murder and punish murderers if God doesn’t exist?” Certainly that will continue to happen whether or not such “morality” has any real basis. Instead, the question is, “Will murder ‘really matter’ if God doesn’t exist?” or “Will anything have intrinsic value if God doesn’t exist?” I am only interested in a foundation for intrinsic value because human psychology and institutions involving “moral practice” could exist, even if they aren’t justified.
I have already discussed intrinsic values in “Is There a Meaning of Life?” but I will briefly describe them again. Most values are just about how useful something is. Money is useful to buy stuff, food is useful for staying alive, television is useful to attain pleasure, and guns are useful to help us kill people. Usefulness is not intrinsic value because such goods by themselves don’t really matter. Having money, food, television, and guns doesn’t make life meaningful without giving us something else which has real meaning. Happiness, knowledge, and human life might have real value. These are the kinds of things that seem to “really matter.” If they really matter and have intrinsic value, then they are not good because we desire them. Instead, they are desired because they are good. They are not only good if I have them; they are good no matter who has them. The more people with happiness the better.
So, food by itself is worthless. Food can be stored and never used. Food on a deserted planet won’t “really matter” in any sense. However, food can be used to help us survive. If human life has value, then survival has value. In that case food can help us attain something with intrinsic value.
Why is intrinsic value important for justifying morality? One reason is because morality doesn’t seem like something we can reject or dismiss. We can say, “I don’t want to be a good student” or “I don’t want to be a good artist,” but we don’t have the option to say, “I don’t want to be a good person.” We can reject being a student or artist without serious problems, but deciding not to be a good person does lead to big problems. We can opt out of our obligations as a student or artist, but we can’t opt out of our moral obligations.
What is a foundation?
In this case a foundation is what “makes something true” and explains how it is possible. What makes the sentence “George Washington was the first president of the USA” true are the actual facts in the world (including facts about human institutions). What makes the sentence, “There is a rock in front of me” true is the fact of an actual rock being in front of me. The problem is that morality doesn’t seem to be true because of facts in the same way that the above statements are true.
Russ Shafer-Landau suggested that it is possible that no foundation is needed for morality. To convince us of this he “would point to correct logical standards or physical laws… and claim that there isn’t anything that makes such things true—they simply are true (Moral Realism: A Defense, 47). However, I think it will be fruitful to take a look at what some people propose to be the foundation for morality and why they think such a foundation could be necessary.
Plato lived at a time when people started to have doubts about intrinsic values and decided that morality was “just a matter of taste.” Justifying intrinsic value seemed out of reach. In order to combat this moral skepticism and show that morality can be justified, Plato introduced his theory of the Forms.
Plato was the inventor of idealism. His Forms were originally called “Ideas,” and these ideas were perfections (ideals) to be found as part of reality. So, Plato decided that part of reality is very little like the world as we experience it. The world as we experience is imperfect, it’s full of change, and everything gets destroyed. In contrast, the Forms are eternal, unchanging, and perfect.
One way the Forms could justify our moral beliefs is by having a Form of the ideal person. People who approximate the ideal person are good, and people who do not are bad.
Another way the Forms could justify our moral beliefs is by trying to embody various ideals, such as knowledge and happiness. To embody something that approximates knowledge would be good, and not doing so (being ignorant) would be bad. To embody something that approximates happiness would be good, and not doing so (to be miserable) would be bad. These ideals sound a lot like intrinsic values.
Plato decided that there are gradations between the eternal and the physical parts of the world. The closer something is to the eternal, the better. So, the eternal parts of the universe that embodies perfect knowledge and happiness could have the most intrinsic value. To embody an approximation of these ideals could have some intrinsic value as well.
He thought we could learn about the Forms because our soul was a part of reality closer to the Forms. However, Plato never made it clear how we can know about the Forms. He suggested that somehow we already learned about the Forms (before we were born as free floating souls), but we have forgotten about them. So, we can somehow try to remember them. This answer is not compelling.
A major problem of Plato’s Forms emerges: We have intrinsic values, but it appears impossible for us to know anything about them. We have justified intrinsic value at the cost of moral skepticism.
Many Christians believe that God is the source of all intrinsic value in much the same way the Plato’s Forms were. Somehow God is the embodiment of all the Forms. So, instead of living up to the perfect (ideal) person, we should try to live up to the embodiment of perfection itself (God). These Christians seem to agree with Plato that the perfections are intrinsic values. It is better to exist than not to exist, so God exists. It is best to have knowledge, happiness, and virtue, so God has these perfections as well.
These Christians then agree with Plato that to approximate perfection is good, and not doing so is bad, and they agree with Plato that existing closer to the eternal realm is better than existing closer to the physical realm. The eternal realm is the source of all intrinsic value, and the physical realm is worthless.
So, the Christian justification for morality is little more than plagiarism of Plato. However, Christians have some additional answers to help explain our moral knowledge:
- Divine revelation allows us to know moral facts when God tells someone what those facts are.
- Jesus was God manifested on Earth so he could tell us moral facts.
- We are supernatural souls and God has given us a power to know moral facts through “intuition.”
- God has given us social instincts to help guide us towards intrinsic value and help us learn what has intrinsic value.
The world of natural science
I do not wish to argue that natural science is currently able to tell us about intrinsic values. I merely want to say that the world described by science (sociological, anthropological, economic, psychological, and physical) is the same world in which moral facts appear to exist. We know at least some moral facts through direct experience, such as the experience of pain. We know pain is bad because of how it feels, and pain itself is part of our psychology.
To say that pain is intrinsically bad appears plausible based on our experience, and God (or the Forms) do not seem relevant to our justification that “pain is bad.” It seems absurd to tell someone, “You can’t know that pain is intrinsically bad unless you find out God exists!” (If God exists, I don’t think it can even experience pain.)
Still, someone might argue, “Well, pain can’t just be bad for no reason because it’s subjective. It might be delusional.” The problem here is that pain would still be bad even if it was a hallucination. Pain doesn’t pretend to be something else. It can’t misrepresent reality. Pain is nothing more than a psychological experience, just like a hallucination.
It is true that some philosophers seem to believe that nothing but quarks, strings, photons, and/or electrons really exist, and everything else is a hallucination, and these philosophers will be unable to justify intrinsic values. Therefore, some other kind of understanding of reality is necessary to enable intrinsic values to exist. I propose that the foundation of intrinsic value is reality itself, but not all of reality. Moral facts are found in an emergent part of the universe. Just like many believe the mind emerges from the brain, it appears that morality emerges from certain conditions of reality as well.
There is nothing about the physical reality of quarks and strings that forces everyone to accept that they are the only real part of the world. It seems obvious enough that we have minds as well. (Try to disprove that fact!) Scientists and philosophers alike often accept that the mind is an emergent and irreducible phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts. Morality might also be an emergent and irreducible phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts.
So, how exactly might we get morality from the universe? First you have to get brains, which give us minds. Some mental activity is pain, which is enough to say that something intrinsically bad exists. The moral implications of pain isn’t reducible to nonmoral facts, just like mental facts don’t seem reducible to nonmental facts. The mind doesn’t seem to be “just the brain” just like we can’t explain what pain is to someone just by pointing to various brain states. In the same way we might be unable say that the badness found in pain is nothing more than nonmoral facts about the mind. (Pain is a morally relevant mental state.) It might be that all moral facts depends on the existence of mental activity, but nonmoral mental states, such as seeing the color green are not morally relevant.
The world of natural science is the most plausible foundation for morality
If intrinsic values require a foundation, then we don’t currently know for sure what it is. We can speculate that Plato’s Forms, God, or the natural world could be the cause of morality, but the natural world is the most plausible answer. Plato’s Forms and God should not be accepted as real without substantial evidence, and evidence of these things are difficult to provide given the fact that they appear to be separate from the natural world. (Even if we did accept that they exist, they might not help us know anything about morality.) It would be much easier to find evidence that intrinsic values from the natural world, and such a hypothesis only requires a view of the universe as a reality that causes some entities to emerge from other entities found in nature (e.g. the mind emerges from the brain).
Additionally, the view that intrinsic values emerge from the mind give us a pretty simple method of attaining moral knowledge. If intrinsic values emerge from the mind, then we will avoid Plato’s problem of moral skepticism, and the Christian reliance of questionable sources of knowledge. We will not have to rely on the possibility that Jesus is God, that the Bible is historically accurate, that we have a kind of supernatural intuition, that the testimony of people who talk to God is accurate, that our social emotions are good, and so on. Such Christian forms of knowledge might be accurate, but we might never know for sure if they are.
People have assumed God is the foundation for intrinsic value for hundreds of years, and many still do. This assumption is essential for an argument for God and an argument against intrinsic values, but these arguments don’t make sense given the fact that intrinsic value does not require God.
The moral argument for God
Some people have tried to argue that God must exist because intrinsic value exists. So far that argument appears blatantly unsound. The argument looks like the following:
- We know intrinsic values exist.
- Intrinsic values could only exist if God exists.
- Therefore God exists.
This argument fails for at least two reasons. One, there are other reasons that intrinsic values can exist, such as Plato’s Forms or the natural world itself. So far God doesn’t even appear to be the best explanation, so we can’t even conclude that “God probably exists” by realizing that intrinsic values exist. Two, we have to be sure that intrinsic values exist, but many people aren’t so sure.
The argument against intrinsic values
Many atheists who have rejected God’s existence have decided that they should also reject the existence of intrinsic values. They seem to accept an argument like the following:
- God doesn’t exist.
- If God doesn’t exist, then intrinsic values don’t exist.
- Therefore, intrinsic values don’t exist.
This argument given by atheists fails because intrinsic values don’t require God’s existence.
If my foundation for intrinsic values is plausible, then we have good reason to accept that morality does not require God. In that case an atheist can have a solid foundation for intrinsic values.
I have not proven that God doesn’t exist. If you believe in God or the Platonic Forms, it is still preferable to account for intrinsic values in terms of our experience rather than supernatural (or non-natural) phenomena with very questionable evidence. If something ordinary and full of common sense can explain and justify morality, that seems much more plausible than a demand for faith or questionable kinds of evidence.
To accept that intrinsic values exist from the natural world is much like accepting that lightning occurs from the natural world. To say that lightning is created by God doesn’t help a scientist do his job. I propose that we can know a lot about the foundation of intrinsic value within the world of natural science as well. People who argue that God must be the foundation to intrinsic value give up to fast, just like the people who argued that God is the cause of lightning.