Moral Arguments

Moral arguments for theism include attempts to establish the existence of God from some (alleged) fact about morality. Many people hold that objective moral values are required to make sense of certain facets of human life, for instance, and that God is the only possible source of such values. The metaethical moral argument contends that the existence of objective moral values either entails the existence of God or at least is best explained by theism (e.g., William Lane Craig, Robert Adams). One version of the argument runs as follows:

1. If there are objective moral values then God exists.
2. There are objective moral values.
3. Therefore, God exists.

Even if we grant the existence of objective moral values, the argument fails because the first premise is groundless. The rationale for thinking that objective moral values require God is the assumption that only God could ground the objectivity of ethics. But, in fact, there appears to be no way that the existence of God could ground moral truths--anymore than it could ground mathematical or scientific truths. The standard objection to the divine command theory of ethics, discussed elsewhere on this site, shows that the objectivity of ethics cannot be grounded in God.

A related epistemological moral argument contends that our knowledge of the existence of objective moral values entails that God exists. Other moral arguments include the prudential moral argument, which claims that we should believe in both God and an afterlife so that fear of judgment after death will deter us from committing immoral acts. (Belief in an afterlife is held to be necessary because consistent judgment clearly does not occur before death, and belief in a just God is necessary to ensure that the good are rewarded and the evil punished in the afterlife.)

-- Keith Augustine

In addition to the articles below, see also related Debates, Reviews, and Links. To purchase related reading, go to the Secular Web Book Store.


Character of Jesus [ Index ]

Selected articles arguing that the protagonist of the New Testament was not a paragon of moral virtue.

Morality and Atheism [ Index ]

Articles addressing the relationship between morality and atheism, especially in the following nine areas: (1) On average, are atheists as moral as theists? (2) On naturalism, why do we have particular moral sentiments or dispositions? (3) Does atheism entail a certain view on specific moral questions? (4) How should atheists live? (5) Why should atheists be moral? (6) Without God, how do we determine what's right and wrong? (7) Without God, what grounds right and wrong? (8) On naturalism, are we free and morally responsible for our actions? And (9) Can life have meaning without God?


Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape (1997) by Michael Martin

"One of the more dramatic debating maneuver used by Christian apologists against atheists is to argue that atheists can provide no objective reason for not raping people. This startling claim follows from the apologists' wider claim that atheists can provide no objective moral reasons for anything. In this paper I will examine both claims in context of the debate between atheism and theism."

Copan's Critique of Atheistic Morality (2000) by Michael Martin

Martin responds to a recent article by Paul Copan. Martin argues that a theistic ontological foundation of morality is impossible, that moral realism is possible in a godless universe, that theistic morality is subject to the accusation of arbitrariness whereas naturalistic moral realism is not, and that human beings are not "special" in the sense intended by theists. In short, Martin argues that Copan's critique of atheistic metaethics is mistaken and his defense of a theistic moral realism is unsound.

Does the Christian Theism Advocated by J.P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason to be Moral than Secular Humanism? (1998) by Richard Carrier

Carrier refutes Moreland's claim that theism offers more and better reasons to live a moral life than atheism or secular humanism.

The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality (1996) (Off Site) by William Lane Craig

In defense of the moral argument, Craig proposes that "if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding. We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God, such actions would no longer count as good (or evil), since if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Thus, we cannot truly be good without God . . ."

Is Atheism Consistent with Morality (2001) by Mark I. Vuletic

Vuletic examines and attempts to refute two different moral arguments for the existence of God: the metaphysical moral argument and the epistemological moral argument. (This paper replaces Vuletic's 1997 paper "Against the Moral Argument.)

Is God Good By Definition? (1992) by Graham Oppy

Oppy argues that the traditional philosophical conception of God requires a commitment to moral realism.

Is God Necessary for Morality? (1995) (Off Site) by Ed Buckner

The transcript of the e-mail debate between "Alcuin," a "channel operator" on the Apologetics and Evangelism section of the Miami Christian University Virtual Library, who is a Christian theist; and two skeptics of theism, John Leckie and his mentor, Dr. Ed Buckner of the Atlanta Freethought Society.

Moral Arguments for the Existence of God (2004) (Off Site) by Peter Byrne, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral arguments for God's existence may be defined as that family of arguments in the history of western philosophical theology having claims about the character of moral thought and experience in their premises and affirmations of the existence of God in their conclusions.

The Moral Argument for God's Existence, the Natural Moral Law, and Conservative Metaphysical Naturalism (2004) (Off Site) by Arnold T. Guminski

This is a downloadable PDF of an expanded version of a lecture for the University of Colorado Theology Forum in which Guminski proposes to show why the moral argument for God's existence is unsound. Particular attention is given to the writings of J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and Paul Copan.

Morality and Atheism (2002) by Ed. Stoebenau and Charles W. Johnson

This paper shows that the moral argument for theism can be defeated in both of its premises: either there are not objective moral standards or they do not need to be from a deity.


Morality, Ethical Behavior, and Atheism on NPR's Talk of the Nation (Oct. 5, 1998) (Off Site) [ Audio ]

Timothy Gorski, M.D. Pastor, North Texas Church of Free Thought, Margeret Downey President, Anti-Discrimination Support Network and President, Free Thought Society of Greater PA, and David Silverman, Director, NJ State Office, American Atheists, talk about ethical behavior and atheism. Requires RealAudio Player.

Morality Requires God... or Does It? (1997) (Off Site) by Theodore Schick, Jr.

Fundamentalists correctly perceive that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. But they erroneously believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore, and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God. Contrary to what the fundamentalists would have us believe, then, what our society really needs is not more religion but a richer notion of the nature of morality.

Naturalism vs. Theism: The Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006)

In this online debate between Richard Carrier and Tom Wanchick, Carrier opens with a discussion of method followed by 5 arguments for naturalism and 2 arguments against theism, while Wanchick opens with 9 arguments for theism. In the first rebuttals, each debater criticizes the arguments offered by the other in the opening statements. In the second rebuttals, each debater defends their opening arguments against the criticisms of the other in the first rebuttals. Both closing statements focus on the purported deficiencies of the other debater's overall case.

Objective Ethics Without Religion (2013) by Richard Schoenig

Is atheism compatible with objective moral facts? In this paper Richard Schoenig defends a justifiable objective moral code based on seven principles comprising two general prescriptions. Schoenig goes on to argue that this basic ethical rationalism—and by extension, objective morality—does not depend on the existence of any supernatural being and is justified by the fact that all moral agents would have a greater chance of achieving more of their plans of life if they lived in a society that followed ethical rationalism rather than one that followed any other moral code. Consequently, the moral argument for theism from ethical objectivity is shown to be unsound, for it depends on the false premise that the only way to account for ethical objectivity is to posit the existence of a supernatural being who grounds it.

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