A Moral Argument for God, Part 1: Moral Realism

By David Baggett

What follows is a two-part, succinct, aerial view of a moral argument for God’s existence. We begin with the natural assumption that there are moral facts. There are moral facts about values, like human beings have intrinsic dignity and worth. There are moral facts about rights and duties, like human beings shouldn’t be subjected to cruel torture just for fun. Most people, believers and unbelievers alike, admit that such facts exist. It takes a strong argument to give up such common sensical convictions and beliefs of such deep ingression.

The notion that there are such moral truths is called “moral realism.” Such a view holds that at least some moral claims are true, and that they are true objectively. This is to suggest that their truth is not merely a function of human preference or sentiment or choice. They are as objective as “2+2=4.” Moral arguments for God’s existence are based on the existence of objective moral facts and values, as well as other moral realities presumed to exist: moral freedom, moral rights, moral regrets, and more. Let’s confine our focus for the moment to duties and values.

Some call into question either the existence or objective status of moral claims. Doing so represents challenges to moral realism, so let’s say a quick word about each. The first challenge to moral realism comes from “error theory,” which denies the existence of moral facts. The main reason given for skepticism is that moral facts would be odd entities that possess authority over us. Error theorists claim it would be strange if such authoritative realities existed.

By way of a short reply, the crux of the issue is this: Which claim are we more confident in? The utter unlikelihood of authoritative moral claims, on the one hand, or the wrongness of torturing children for the fun of it, on the other? Again, if we are going to give up all of our moral convictions, we should expect a strong argument. The alleged oddness of moral facts doesn’t provide one. Instead, the authority of morality may provide a clue about the nature of reality.

Another attempt to reject moral realism is called “expressivism.” This is the view that says moral judgments are neither true nor false, but rather something like an expression of emotions. To say, “Murder is wrong,” for example, is really just to communicate, “Murder, yuck!” It’s akin to booing a baseball team. And to say, “Generosity is good” is like cheering for your team, and nothing more. It is neither true nor false. It describes nothing.

Of course, most people don’t think they are using moral language in this way. Understanding moral language as merely expressivist robs it of its ability to say what we want to say. To affirm that the Holocaust was morally horrific is not merely to say, “Holocaust, boo!” It’s rather to say something about the Holocaust itself, not merely to express our feelings about it. Yes, we do and should hate everything the Holocaust stood for because the Holocaust itself was really that bad. It’s interesting that even those who think moral language is nothing more than expression of feelings continue to use such language. The reason, most likely, is that they know the import of moral language goes beyond the mere expression of emotions.

Error theory and expressivism reject moral realism altogether, but don’t give us a good reason to follow suit. Another alternative to moral realism doesn’t reject it so much as attempt to revise it. This view is called “constructivism,” and constructivists, unlike the error theorists and expressivists, affirm that there are moral facts. What moral facts there are, though, come from human preferences and endorsements and the like. Constructivism comes in several varieties. We will mention just a few.

Perhaps the best known version of constructivism is ethical relativism, according to which something is good or right in virtue of a group’s endorsement of it. Suppose, for example, that one’s society accepts abortion as morally normative. According to ethical relativism, this makes abortion morally permissible for the society. But of course, this seems quite problematic. Imagine if most people in a society were to accept child torture for fun. That would hardly be enough to say that child torture for that society becomes morally okay. Morality is not dictated by a poll. That is just one of many problems associated with ethical relativism. Other problems include its unpalatable and counterintuitive implications, its failure to account for moral progress, and, arguably, the way it eventually devolves into relativizing morality to the individual, thereby explaining morality away rather than explaining it.

Other constructivist theories attempt to do better than ethical relativism while continuing to insist that what moral facts exist are a function of human endorsement. For example, ideal observer theory says that what’s morally right or good is what an “ideal hypothetical agent” endorses. The ideal observer is assumed to be fully informed and vividly imaginative, as well as impartial, dispassionate, and clearheaded. This view is thought by some to provide a more objective account of morality than ethical relativism, but without the need to invoke mysterious moral facts.

To mention but one problem with this approach, why would the determinations of a purely hypothetical agent have any purchase on the decisions by actual people? It is not as if the agent in question grasps what is morally true and acknowledges it as such, but is rather thought somehow to make something morally true by endorsing it. It remains quite unclear how this is so. Intractable problems seem to accompany every variant of constructivism. In general, locating the purchase of morality in the decisions of human beings, real or hypothetical, robs morality of its requisite authority and robust objectivity.

If the various alternatives to moral realism all seem to fall short, then there is good reason to remain moral realists and to take seriously our moral experience that treats moral judgments as substantive claims about what is real. Besides, there are positive arguments that can be offered in favor of the truth of moral realism which involve more than merely taking as reliable our clear moral intuitions.

David Enoch offers an argument for moral realism based on what he calls their “deliberative indispensability.” Terence Cuneo offers book-length treatments of other arguments for moral realism: one based on the parity between moral and epistemic facts, and the other based on the way we use language. And there are other arguments besides, but even apart from such arguments, certain moral facts are, quite simply, truths we can’t not know.

All in all, moral realism makes best sense of deep-seated moral intuitions and of moral experience closely considered. It deserves to be taken seriously, and should not be given up too easily. If a naturalistic picture of the world encounters insuperable challenges accounting for objective moral facts like values and duties, this gives us a better reason to call naturalism into question than to grow skeptical about morality.

Apprehending important moral truths is something that both believers and unbelievers can do, which gives us common ground with our secular friends. Most all of us can readily agree that some things are right and some things are wrong; some things are good, and others bad or even evil. That is the first step of moral arguments for God’s existence. It starts with basic moral facts of which we are all aware, and then we are invited to explore whether such realities give us reason to take belief in God more seriously.

Such a case can be made if it can be shown that God provides a good explanation of what close attentiveness to their nature reveals about moral facts and that various secular efforts to explain the authority of morality fall short. In brief compass, this is what the next installment will attempt to do.

Recall C. S. Lewis’s moral argument at the beginning of Mere Christianity that resonated with truth that seized the imagination of a nation at war. He wrote that there are two vitally important truths to grasp: that there is a real moral law—which is more than a function of education or herd instinct—and that we all fall short of it. These two truths “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”

Published January 15, 2024

David Baggett

David Baggett is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for the Foundations of Ethics at Houston Christian University. He is the author or editor of about twenty books, including a tetralogy on the moral argument with Oxford University Press.