Ethical Realism

February 9, 2010

A Moral Argument for the Existence of God Based on Skepticism

Filed under: ethics,metaethics,philosophy,review — JW Gray @ 7:30 am
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Many people claim that morality requires God. There are multiple arguments that attempt to infer that God exists because morality exists. I haven’t extensively read the current literature, but I am familiar with contemporary metaethics, which gives me a good idea why many of these arguments don’t work. Additionally, some of these arguments are discussed on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I will discuss an argument by Linda Zagzebski that “we either know little to nothing about morality or we get moral knowledge from God. Our intention of being moral requires us to know a lot about morality, so we must accept that God exists.” I believe that this argument reflects a sort of ethical skepticism that has historically plagued Christianity, and we have very little reason to agree with it.

I will present four objections to Zagzebski’s argument. One, she requires us to accept that we could only know an adequate amount about morality if we get moral knowledge through divine revelation, but this seems false. We can know quite a lot about morality through personal experience. Two, If her argument succeeds, then I don’t see why anyone who lacks moral knowledge from divine revelation should try to be moral. Three, her argument demands that we know a lot about a topic in order to rationally study it. That seems to imply that studying string theory is a waste of time, but this seems absurd. Four, her argument seems self-defeating because if her argument succeeds, then religious philosophy would be a waste of time.

I understand the argument to be the following:

  1. If God doesn’t exist, then we know little to nothing about morality.
  2. If God exists, then we can know quite a bit about morality.
  3. If we try to be moral, then we need to know quite a bit about morality.
  4. We try to be moral.
  5. So, we must know quite a bit about morality.
  6. Therefore, rationality requires that we accept that God exists.

I will take a look at each of these premises:

Premise 1

If God doesn’t exist, then we know little to nothing about morality.

Zagzebski points out that we can’t try to be moral if we know little to nothing about morality, but no one is willing to reject morality altogether. Additionally, we seem to know little to nothing about morality considering the great amount of unresolvable moral disagreement. For example, the abortion debate.

I find this premise to be implausible for the following two reasons:

Objection 1: Although we might have unresolvable moral disagreements, that doesn’t prove that we know “little to nothing about morality.” We seem to agree that pain is bad, pleasure is good, human life has value, and so on. Disagreement arises when we have difficulty measuring the amount of value involved. Killing one life when necessary to save 100 lives seems to be right because one life isn’t worth as much as 100. However, it is difficult to know if or when we should put suffering people “out of their misery.” Living six hours while suffering might be worth it.

I think we know quite a bit about morality through personal experience. Experiencing pain is enough to know that pain is bad once we realize other people’s pain is also bad for the same reason. Zagzebski seems to think that accurate moral knowledge could only come from divine revelation, but that is not how I know about moral truth.

Objection 2: It isn’t clear that we have unresolvable disagreement about morality. We seem to resolve moral disagreements in time. At one time some people thought slavery was somehow permissible, but we now know that slavery is wrong.

Premise 2

If God exists, then we can know quite a bit about morality.

Either God gives us knowledge directly through revelation, or we re all born with moral knowledge, or he gives us some kind of supernatural ability to detect moral truth. Out of these possibilities unresolvable moral disagreement would indicate that only a few people possess actual moral knowledge through revelation.

I will not object to this premise. An omnipotent God’s existence makes anything possible.

Premise 3

If we try to be moral, then we need to know quite a bit about morality.

If we want to try to do the right thing, then we have to be able to know what the right thing to do is (or at least get a pretty accurate understanding of what doing the right thing would be).

I’m not sure if I agree with this argument or not. We do need to know something about right and wrong to rationally justify why we should try to do it, but I don’t know how much we would need to know.

Premise 4

We try to be moral.

Zagzebski’s argument is meant to appeal to people who will try to be moral. I suppose some people don’t try to be moral. In that case we might just admit that morality is irrational. I will not question this premise.

Premise 5

So, we must know quite a bit about morality.

If we try to be moral and we need to know quite a bit about morality, then we have to accept that we know quite a bit about morality.

Zagzebski’s Conclusion

Therefore, rationality requires that we accept that God exists.

If we accept the premises, then the conclusion follows. If we need to know quite a bit about morality to rationally try to be moral, and God is the only way to sufficiently know about morality, then we must believe in God. To not believe in God would make it too difficult to try to be moral because we would have little to know idea how to be good.

Three More Objections

Objection 1: The argument has an inconsistency. Unresolvable moral differences is evidence that we know little to nothing about morality whether or not God exists. If God’s existence is reason to believe in moral knowledge, then that is just one more reason to reject the existence of God.

Of course, it is possible that some people have a sort of divine revelation that gives them moral knowledge. However, that doesn’t mean that I personally have such moral knowledge. Assuming the argument is sound, I personally would have no reason to try to be moral because I personally lack moral knowledge. Only someone with divine revelation would have reason to try to be moral.

The possibility that some people, such as Jesus, had moral knowledge doesn’t mean that I have moral knowledge. The infinitesimal amount of moral knowledge supposedly recorded in the bible doesn’t help us resolve our moral disagreements. The moral law “thou shalt not kill” is already accepted by everyone, and it doesn’t help us resolve the more complected moral issues. How do we decide if killing is ever OK? Certainly killing to save 100 people could be necessary. We need to know how to measure values, but values appear to be immeasurable.

Objection 2: The argument strategy requires us to accept a belief in order to be rational, but this strategy itself seems flawed. I have to wonder if unresolvable moral differences leads to the belief in God when unresolvable scientific disagreement doesn’t. At one time disagreements about the physical world were unresolvable (or seemed to be unresolvable). One person might argue that the Earth is flat, and another that the Earth is round. It could be said that physical science would be irrational at this point because of our ignorance, and the only possible way to attain knowledge about physics would be from God. However, we now know that this argument is absurd. If we gave up on physical science, then we would never have developed science into the extremely powerful source of knowledge it has become.

We still have some seemingly unresolvable scientific disagreement (such as those involving string theory), but it seems absurd to say that we should stop doing science involving string theory when some degree of progress is still being made. It would be even more absurd to ask string theorists to look for God’s revelation or start reading the bible to gain knowledge involving string theory.

I want to suggest that believing in God to rationalize our moral behavior is just as absurd as using God to rationalize our scientific behavior. It doesn’t seem to help. If God really did give us scientific knowledge and moral knowledge through revelation and those with such knowledge could completely pass it down, then physical science and moral philosophy would be a waste of time. We would indeed have access to a great deal of knowledge. That is simply not the case. Scientists and moral philosophers have thousands of books worth of knowledge that was never provided by revelation.

Objection 3:  Zagzebski’s argument is self-defeating because if it is sound, then it isn’t plausible enough to avoid the need for divine revelation.

Why? I have never heard of an argument for God’s existence universally accepted by the philosophical community (including religious philosophers). These arguments are never plausible enough to be accepted by all rational people. If these arguments have any degree of plausibility, then they (at best) seem to lead to unresolvable disagreement. Therefore, it isn’t clear why Zagzebski thinks she can have sufficient philosophical knowledge to prove that God exists (or even that we must rationally assume God’s existence) when such unresolvable disagreements seem to require divine revelation. Without divine revelation Zagzebski’s augment would seem to imply that religious philosophy is irrational. Why? God has never given anyone the perfect argument for his existence through divine revelation. Therefore, Zagzebski must either reject her own argument, or she shouldn’t be doing religious philosophy.


Zagzebski doesn’t argue that God must exist or “nothing really matters.” Instead, she argues that we can’t know enough about morality without God, and we can’t rationally try to be moral unless we can know enough about morality.

I argued that Zagzebski’s argument is unpersuasive. It (a) requires a controversial premise, (b) could not prove to anyone without divine revelation that he or she should believe in God (unless divine revelation of others could be plausibly established through the transmission of significant moral knowledge), (c) appears to be require the absurd requirement that string theorists need divine revelation, and (d) seems to be self-defeating considering that every sort of argument for god has (at best) lead to unresolvable disagreement (and thus required revelation).

Unlike Zagzebski, I do not find moral skepticism to be plausible. We know quite a bit about morality. Feeling pain is enough to know that pain is bad. We also know that intense pain is worse than slight pains, and so on.

Note that I am not very familiar with the current literature of religious philosophy (including Zagzebski’s argument), so it is possible that I have misunderstood it. I relied on Peter Byrne’s discussion of her argument on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. If this wasn’t Zagzebski’s argument, it is still one of the better arguments that I know of that claims that morality requires God using what I believe to be many assumptions that people have, so it is worth considering why some of these assumptions might be implausible. For example, the view that divine revelation is necessary for moral knowledge (or has even been very helpful in the past) seems to be false.


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