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Michael Martin Copan

Copan’s Critique of Atheistic Objective Morality

Michael Martin


Related documents:

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

“One of the more dramatic debating maneuvers 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.”

The Naturalistic Fallacy and Other Mistaken Arguments of Paul Copan (2000) by Michael Martin

In this response to Paul Copan (“Can Michael Martin Be A Moral Realist? Sic et Non,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 45-71) Martin revisits Copan’s defense of the ontological foundation of theistic morality. Martin also addresses the charge that ethical naturalists commit the naturalistic fallacy, delves into the argument from evil, the Euthyphro Dilemma, as well as notions of original sin and intrinsic human worth.

[This article was originally published in Philosophia Christi Series 2, 2/1 (2000): 75-89. Republished with the permission of the editor of Philosophia Christi.]

In a recent article[1] Paul Copan of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries criticized the position I defended in my Internet paper “Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape.”[2] In that paper I defended the objectivity of atheistic morality and the problematic nature of a theistic based morality. In particular, I argue that atheistic morality is not necessarily subjective and that the commonly held position of basing morality on God’s character rather than on His commands does not escape the Euthyphro dilemma.

Acknowledging that atheists can know objective moral truths, Copan argued that I offered no nontheistic ontological foundation for them. He also claimed that I confused “the order of knowing with the order of being.” In addition, he maintained that God’s “essentially perfect nature is not subject to the accusation of arbitrariness”[3] whereas my own naturalistic moral realism is. In short, Copan argued that atheism cannot provide an ontological foundation for morality because a theistic ontological foundation for morality is necessary. In what follows I critically consider Copan’s argument.

The Impossibility of A Theistic Ontological Foundation of Morality

One tacit assumption Copan made when arguing for the impossibility of an atheistic foundation of morality and for the necessity of a theistic one is that a theistic ontological foundation of something is logically possible. But unless the concept of God is shown to be coherent, theism cannot possibly be thought to be an ontological foundation of morality or anything else.

In Atheism I argued in detail that the various attributes of God are incoherent with one another and that they are sometimes internally incoherent.[4] More recently, Theodore Drange surveyed other arguments of a similar kind.[5] Moreover, even more recently Douglas Walton has revived Carneades’ argument that God’s moral nature is incoherent.[6] To my knowledge neither my arguments nor the ones presented by Drange and Walton have been refuted. Until they are, Copan’s claims about the necessity of theistic morality are without merit.

Stated more formally, in order to make his case Copan must refute The Argument From Incoherence (AFI):

1. If a theistic ontological foundation of morality is necessary, then such a foundation must be possible.

2. If a theistic ontological foundation of morality is possible, then the notion of God is coherent.

3. But the notion of God is not coherent.

Hence, a theistic ontological foundation of morality is not necessary.

Obviously, premise # 3 is the key one in AFI. This premise must be refuted and I see no quick way to do so for the task will require detailed refutations of over a dozen supporting arguments.

Copan’s Attempt to Undermine Moral Naturalism

In my Internet paper I presented the following Argument from Previous Attempts (APA) as a challenge to theists who maintain that atheistic morality is necessarily subjective:

(1) In order to show that atheistic morality necessarily is subjective, theists must show that all attempts to ground objective morality on a nontheistic basis fail.

(2) But theists have not shown that all attempts to ground objective morality on a nontheistic basis fail.

(3) Hence, theists have not shown that atheistic morality is necessarily subjective.

As I pointed out there, theists have their work cut out for them for there have been any number of attempts to show that morality can have an objective basis independent of religion.[7] To my knowledge these attempts have not been refuted.

In his critique Copan attempted to refute some of the arguments proffered by Roderick Firth, Richard Boyd, Peter Railton, and David Brink, all of whom defended moral realism without religious foundations. But his attempt was unsuccessful. Consider, for example, Copan’s comments on Firth’s ideal observer theory. Trying valiantly to show that Firth’s theory is based on a theistic concept of God,[8] Copan pointed out that Firth was not an atheist but a Quaker. However, this well-known fact is irrelevant to the question of whether Firth’s theory is compatible with atheism. It is and Firth thought it was. Charles Taliaferro who was cited by Copan and who (according to Copan) studied with Firth, as I did, admits this.[9] Copan accused me of fudging when I said that according to Firth, the ideal observer is not all-powerful. In his opinion I should have said that the ideal observer is not “necessarily” all-powerful. Apparently, Copan did not read Firth’s paper carefully. Besides her ideal properties the ideal observer is in all other respects a normal human being. Since being all-powerful is not normal for human beings, the ideal observer could not be all-powerful. But God by definition is necessarily all-powerful and could not possibly be weak. Copan pointed out that, according to Firth, the ideal observer is a partial description of God if the ideal observer is conceived of as an infallible moral judge. Yes, but so what? The ideal observer is also NOT a description of God if God is conceived of as a creator, an all-powerful being, a morally perfect person, a disembodied entity, and so on. Moreover, the ideal observer is hypothetical–it does not exist!

Copan concluded his discussion of Firth by saying:

Again, this theory, while compatible with atheistic moral realism at the epistemological level, fails to substantiate the requisite metaphysics of personhood and its intrinsic dignity or value. Such a metaphysics is necessary for an objective ethics to get off the ground.

How Copan arrived at this conclusion is a mystery. He pointed out certain similarities between the ideal observer and God–mentioning none of the important differences–and then strangely concluded that the ideal observer theory is metaphysically inadequate whereas a God-based morality is not. Given the drift of his argument one would have expected him to conclude, as Taliaferro did, that the ideal observer theory is a promising theory for theists and atheists alike.

It is not at all clear why Copan believes that the ideal observer theory cannot substantiate “the requisite metaphysics of personhood and its intrinsic dignity or value.” After all, such values would be analyzed in terms of the feelings of approval of an ideal observer. Moreover, the properties of the ideal observer are natural properties. So metaphysically speaking, the attribute of intrinsic dignity would be a natural property. To be sure, such an analysis might be unsuccessful but nothing Copan said shows this. Indeed, he did not even try to show it.

In passing, Copan also criticized Richard Boyd’s and Peter Railton’s moral realism. He faulted Boyd’s theory for allegedly giving no account of the intrinsic dignity of the individual and for being concerned only with homeostatic property clusters that merely have social relevance.[10] But this is a most uncharitable interpretation of Boyd who said explicitly that there are human goods such as love, friendship, cooperation, control over one’s own life which are closely related to one another in society.[11] Boyd could just as well have included human dignity and worth among his examples of homeostatical related goods. That Copan did not acknowledge this obvious point suggests that he was not making a serious effort to understand the theory. As Boyd made clear in the very footnote Copan cited, his theory is compatible with the satisfaction of individual goods but its major emphasis is on how one person’s good is related to the satisfaction of other people’s goods.

Copan faulted me, in turn, for appealing to Peter Railton who, according to Copan, only posited supervenience but did not defend it.[12] Copan must have read a different paper from the one that I cited. As I read Railton his entire paper consists of an argument that attempts to show that positing a metaphysical realm of moral facts is analogous to postulating a realm of scientific facts: namely, it is justified by its explanatory value. To be sure, Railton’s defense of this position may ultimately be shown to be unsuccessful. But Copan has no basis for saying Railton did not defend it.

Copan also raised some criticisms against Brink.[13] His critique turns on an interpretation of Brink as a materialist. However, although Brink briefly defended materialism in both his book and his paper, he is committed to naturalism, not materialism. Moreover, even if he were committed to materialism, there would be no necessity in his being so committed. In addition, Copan raised no direct critique of Brink’s moral ontology. He criticized Brink for assuming that there is nothing strange about mental states in a materialistic world-view because both moral states and mental states are strange if materialism is true. However, he gave no good argument for this claim.[14] In short, given Copan’s ineffectual criticisms of Firth, Boyd, Railton and Brink, premise # 2 of APA remains unrefuted.

Did Copan adduce any other arguments for his position? Yes, he tried to defend Mackie’s critique of atheistic objectivist ethics. In addition, he proposed a counterargument to APA. The key premise in this counterargument, namely, that atheists have offered no ontological foundation (based on naturalism) to account for intrinsic human dignity, human rights, etc. he defended in two different ways. First, he argued that I confused epistemology and ontology. Second, he maintained that moral realism is improbable in an atheistic universe. Let us consider these two claims in turn.

1. One of the most famous critics of objective ethics was the atheist philosopher John Mackie. As I pointed out in my Internet paper Mackie gave two arguments for his rejection of objective ethics that are often cited by theists to justify their position: the argument from disagreement and the argument from strangeness. I raised serious questions about both of these arguments based mainly on the work of Brink.

Apparently Copan had no objection to my criticism of the argument from disagreement. In response to my argument[15] he said that my “response to the strangeness argument is that, contra Mackie’s internalist account, moral realism is compatible with externalism. Martin does not give much of an argument for the latter except a passing footnote.”[16] However, nothing Copan said undermines the refutation of Mackie I presented. Moreover, the passing footnote Copan alluded to referred the reader to detailed arguments given by Brink.

2. Instead of refuting my arguments Copan proposed a counterargument:

(1′) To ground an objective moral order the atheist must show that naturalism furnishes an ontological framework for the intrinsic dignity of human beings, universal human rights, and moral responsibility.

(2′) The atheists have shown no such ontological foundation (based on naturalism) to account for intrinsic human dignity, human rights, etc.

(3′) Therefore, the atheists’ attempt to ground an objective morality fails.[17]

In addition to his weak objections to the theories of Firth, Brink, Boyd and Railton, Copan presented two reasons in support of 2′. First, he claimed that I confused epistemology and ontology; that is, the epistemic question of whether one can know moral truths independently of God and the ontological question of whether moral truths can exist independently of God. He admitted that although as an atheist I could know that rape is wrong, I cannot “tell us why such moral knowledge is possible.” In particular, he claimed that I gave no “ontological foundation” at all for my opposition to ethnic cleansing, torture and rape.

I fail to see any confusion on my part. Rather the confusion seems to be Copan’s in assuming that a naturalistic ontological foundation of morality is a priori impossible. Although he is correct that the epistemic question is separate from the ontological one, these two questions are linked in application: one’s theory of knowledge will be relevant to the ontology one postulates to explain knowledge claims, and one’s ontology will be relevant to the sort of knowledge one thinks is possible.

According to moral naturalism, moral properties are constituted by natural properties and this ontological hypothesis explains moral insights and evidence. Copan wrongly supposed that moral naturalists arbitrarily postulate moral facts, but their postulations are no more arbitrary than scientists’ postulations of scientific facts. In both instances these postulations are hypotheses that purport to explain the moral evidence and are to be judged by similar criteria. Just as the ontological hypothesis of scientific facts explains scientific evidence, so the ontological hypothesis of moral facts explains moral evidence and insights. Just as we revise our views of scientific facts in the light of new factual evidence, so we revise our views of moral facts in the light of new moral evidence. Philosophers such as Boyd and Brink have worked out this analogy between scientific ontology and scientific epistemology, on the one hand, and moral ontology and moral epistemology, on the other, with great subtly. In order to show that either kind of postulation is wrong detailed criticisms of the theory must be offered. To be sure, there may be serious obstacles to such a conception of moral ontology but Copan gave no good reason to suppose so. Rather he assumed that it is impossible without argument.

In addition to his argument from my alleged confusion, Copan compiled a list of facts which he claimed are “much more probable” if God exists than if God does not exist. This list includes the beginning of a space-time universe, the delicate balance of cosmic constants in the world that makes conditions just right for human existence, and moral realism.[18] Three things should be noted about this list. Atheistic philosophers have challenged the evidential import for theism of all of these facts. Copan not only failed to mention this but also took it for granted that these facts support theism. Moreover, Copan failed to note that there are other facts such as the existence of evil and widespread nonbelief which prima facie count against theism.[19] Third, Copan assumed without argument that theism is a coherent position and that the concept of God is not inconsistent.[20]

Putting these points aside I reconstruct his argument with respect to moral realism as follows:

(4) Probably if moral facts exist, God exists.

(5) Moral facts exist.

(6) Therefore, probably God exists.

Assuming that premise #5 is true, the key question is whether premise #4 is true. Unfortunately, Copan supplied no support for this premise. Why should one find it surprising that a godless universe should have objective moral values? On the usual interpretations of probability such surprise is hardly justified.

Consider the frequency theory of probability. According to it, the probability of an event is the relative frequency of events of this type in a larger class of events. For example, the probability of getting heads on the next toss of a coin is understood as the frequency of heads in a long series of tosses of the coin. This theory has only a tenuous application to the case at issue for it is not clear what it would mean to say that moral facts are unlikely in an atheistic universe. On one interpretation of the frequency theory, to say that the probability of realistic values in an atheistic universe is low would be to say that the relative frequency of atheistic universes with realistic values is low relative to all atheistic universes. But since we know only one universe, namely, this one, the analysis does not apply. On another interpretation of the frequency theory, to say that the probability of realistic values in an atheistic universe is low would be to say that in this atheistic universe the frequency of planets where human beings have evolved with realistic values is low relative to all planets where human beings have evolved. But since we know only one planet where humans have evolved, namely, Earth, the analysis does not apply.

The classical theory of probability also seems inapplicable. On this theory a probability statement is construed in terms of the ratio of favorable cases to possible cases. In its simplest form, there are two possible cases: an atheistic universe with realistic moral values and an atheistic universe without them. Since one possibility is favorable to the realistic values, the probability is 1/2 that there will be realistic moral values, in an atheistic universe. More complex formulations of the situation are possible. For example, moral realism in an atheistic universe can come in two different varieties: moral naturalism with moral properties which are constituted by natural properties and moral realism such as G. E. Moore in which moral properties are sui generis. Then there are three possible cases, two of them favorable to moral realism. So the probability is 2/3 that there will be realistic moral values in an atheistic universe. Other analyses of the situation are possible that changes the probability.[21]

However, analyses in terms of the classical approach to the meaning of probability make a questionable assumption that undermines the attempt to use it. The classical approach must assume that all possible cases are equally likely, yet there is no reason to suppose that this is true. Historically, an attempt was made to overcome this problem by using the principle of indifference–sometimes called the principle of insufficient reason: Insofar as we lack information about whether the possibilities are equally likely or not we should assume that they are. However, this principle leads to contradictory results and has been replaced by a more reasonable principle: assume that the possibilities are equally likely only when there is positive evidence that they are. However, this more reasonable principle has no application to the probability of moral realism since there is no positive evidence.

In short, Copan’s arguments fail to undermine my argument that moral realism is possible in a godless universe.

Critique of the Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro Dilemma maintains that if something is moral because God commanded it, morality is arbitrary since whatever God commanded would be moral. On the other hand, if God commands something because it is moral, then God’s commands are not the basis of morality.

Religious believers such as Copan have argued that the Euthyphro Dilemma embodies a false dilemma. They have said that it is not the case that God’s command is arbitrary or else is dependent on something independent of God because there is another possibility. Their position is that morality is not independent of God, but rather depends upon Him for its existence. Yet morality is not arbitrary, for God’s will operates according to a moral standard which is God’s moral nature. Since God is essentially morally perfect, God could not be bad. Indeed, He would never command the torture of infants for this is a logical impossibility for Him. The position of these believers is that this avoids both the arbitrariness horn of the dilemma and the dependency horn. Although God certainly acts morally His moral nature is not based on a moral standard external to Himself. Moral justification is based solely on God and would be impossible without God.

I will call this response to the Euthyphro Dilemma the Essential Moral Attribute Response (EMAR). EMAR rules out a particular view of God that is held by many theists: divine voluntarism. For EMAR assumes that God has an essential moral nature that limits the power of God’s will and just such a limitation on God’s will has been rejected by, for example, such well known philosophers as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.[22]

To many believers this limitation on God’s power has paradoxical implications in that it implies that God could not do certain things that are well within the powers of human beings. He could not torture innocent children, for example. But let us accept the view of God that is part of EMAR: a being that is essentially good. From this it does not follow that nothing would be moral unless God exists.

In general, the following is an invalid argument:

7. Property P is part of the essential nature of X

8. If X did not exist, property P would not be a property of anything.

Thus, for example, the property of being benevolent is part of the essential nature of being a saint. But it does not follow that if saints did not exist, the property of being benevolent would not be a property of anything. So this view of God can be granted without it entailing that moral goodness would be impossible without God.

Are there any other reasons to reject the view that morality is impossible without God? If “impossible” refers to logical impossibility, there seems to be a very simple reason. The following claim is not prima facie logically impossible:

(9) There are moral facts and God does not exist

However, if the existence of moral facts necessitated the existence of God, (9) would be logically impossible. To be sure, there may be a hidden contradiction in (9) but this would have to be shown. Now it might be argued that (9) is a logically impossible claim since God’s existence is itself logically necessary.[23] However, this counterargument presumes the soundness of some version of the Ontological Argument. But the Ontological Argument is widely discredited.[24] Without the soundness of this argument I see no reason to suppose that (9) is logically impossible. Moreover, as I have said, there are good reasons to suppose that the concept of God is incoherent.

Furthermore, we have already seen that if “impossible” means improbable, Copan has supplied no reason for believing:

(10) Probably, if God does not exist, then moral facts do not exist.

In addition, it does not follow that properties of God such as benevolence and justice are good, simply because they are necessary properties of God. Thus, it is irrelevant to the moral nature of benevolence and justice that they are essential to God’s nature. In fact, in general this is an invalid inference:

(11) X is P

(12) X is an essential part of Y

(13) Y is essentially P

(14) Hence, X is P because X is an essential attribute of Y.

Let X be compassion, P be good, and Y be sainthood. The conclusion does not follow. Compassion is good but not because it is an essential attribute of being a saint.

In addition there are two more reasons for rejecting the necessity of theistic ethics. As previously mentioned accounts of objective morality on the basis of moral naturalism, which have not been refuted, have been developed by atheistic philosophers. Indeed, Copan failed in the paper I am considering here to refute them. Furthermore, the view that morality is dependent on God has absurd consequences. If morality were dependent on God, it would follow that if God did not exist, then the basic belief that the gratuitous torture of babies is morally wrong would be mistaken. But the conclusion of this inference is absurd.

This last thesis has been argued persuasively by the contemporary Israeli philosophers Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman.[25] They have maintained that Divine Command Morality (DCM) has (depending on its formulation) two basic problems. On the one hand, if DCM is formulated in terms of the will of God, its has the Problem of Moral Arbitrariness. Morality is arbitrarily determined by God’s commands. Consequently, the gratuitous torture of babies is morally obligatory if God commanded it. However, this is absurd. On the other hand, if DCM avoids the Problem of Moral Arbitrariness by arguing that God is necessarily kind and loving and yet that morality is necessarily dependent on the existence of God, then there is the Karamazov Problem. If there is no God, then anything is morally permitted–including the gratuitous torture of babies. However, this is equally absurd.

Sagi and Statman plausibly require that all metaethical theories, including DCM, must be compatible with our basic moral beliefs. However, both formulations of DCM conflict with our basic moral beliefs. Accordingly, basic ethical statements regarding the wrongness of actions such as wanton cruelty and the murder of innocent people are analytic in a broad sense of the term. It is just as inconceivable that the gratuitous torture of babies is not morally wrong in some possible world than that an object is green and red all over at the same time in some possible world.

However, one need not suppose, as Avi and Statman do, that such ethical statements are analytic to hold that the claim is absurd that wanton cruelty is not wrong. Such a claim would conflict with our most well supported moral judgments. It has the same absurd status as the claim that the earth is flat, which is to say that although it is not necessarily false, it is manifestly false.

One reason behind the theistic resistance to the view that morality is independent on God is that it would allegedly compromise God’s omnipotence. If morality is not based on God, then it is assumed that God’s power is lessened. However, there are many theists who do not suppose that logic is dependent on God. Indeed, they can make perfect sense of godless worlds in which logical principles such as the law of noncontradiction hold. But then it is unclear why they cannot make perfect sense of godless worlds in which objective moral principles hold. In neither case is God’s power affected. He can do everything that it is logical possible for Him to do. It is logically impossible for Him to make both P and ~P true. However, since He is essentially good He cannot inflict gratuitous torture on infants. In logic, the logical principles are not dependent on God; in morality the moral principles are not dependent on God. This existence of independent standards is quite compatible with the admission that God’s nature is essentially logical and essentially moral and, consequently, that God could act neither illogically nor immorally.

Another obstacle to embracing the view that morality is independent of God is the assumption that if this were so, God would have to consult an independent standard of morality whenever He acted.[26] This seems paradoxical. However, this assumption is incorrect. Insofar as God is essentially good this standard is instantiated in His nature and He is good effortlessly and spontaneously. No continuing consultation is necessary. But this no more shows that morality is dependent on God than the effortlessly and spontaneously goodness of some saints shows that morality is dependent on them.

What has been established with respect to the Euthyphro Dilemma? First, the use of EMAR allows one to escape one horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma–the arbitrariness horn. It does so by rejecting a voluntarism view of the divine and arguing that God’s moral attributes are necessary. Has EMAR escaped the other horn–the dependence horn? No, it has not. As noted, the thesis that morality is dependent on God is not established by the thesis that moral goodness is part of God’s essential attributes. In addition, EMAR does not establish that God’s moral attributes are moral simply because they are necessary attributes of God. Moreover, I have offered reason to suppose that objective morality is possible without God. Further, the view that morality is dependent on God’s essential nature has absurd implications.

Let us consider some less serious objections to the Euthyphro dilemma. Attempting to turn the tables on atheists, Copan argued that naturalistic versions of moral realism are susceptible to a form of the Euthyphro dilemma:

We can ask Martin: “Are supervening moral properties–or even moral principles like justice– good simply because they are good, or is there some independent standard to which they conform?” Thus, the same alleged dilemma Martin claims the theists face is very same one the atheist does.[27]

However, there is a disanalogy between the regular version of the Euthyphro dilemma and this naturalistic version. In the first place, the arbitrariness horn of the standard dilemma is based on a view of God’s nature that emphasizes the primacy of His will: what is moral is a function of God’s choice that theoretically could change from moment to moment. The EMAR escapes this horn of the dilemma by fixing morality in the essential nature of God rather than in His choice. However, as we have seen, even this does not escape the dependence horn of the dilemma unless we make the implausible assumption that, for example, benevolence and justice are not moral properties in their own right but are only moral because they are an essential part of God’s nature.

Once this assumption is rejected there is no sense in still raising this arbitrariness objection. God is essentially benevolent, just and so on. There is nothing arbitrary about it. Benevolence and justice are moral attributes because they are moral, not because they are necessary attributes of God, and there is nothing arbitrary about that either.

In the naturalistic version of the dilemma a moral property is not a function of anyone’s choice. The arbitrariness objection is no more relevant than in the regular version of the Euthyphro dilemma when modified by EMAR and understood in the way I have suggested. Although on many versions of naturalism, properties such as benevolence and justice would not necessarily be identical with natural properties, they would be constituted by natural properties. However, this does not mean that properties such as benevolence would be moral because they are constituted by natural properties.

In the second place, the dependency horn of the dilemma fails. Benevolence and justice are moral properties in their own right, and not because of any external standard. What possible external standard could there be except God? But, as we have seen, there are good reasons for supposing that God is not the basis of morality. No non-question begging reasons have been given as to why objective moral properties cannot exist in a godless universe. Moreover, even if God’s moral properties are essential to His nature, they are not moral because they are essential.

Another objection is this. Atheists who are moral realists, it is said, assume a moral universe in which moral obligation, human dignity, and human rights and responsibility would still exist. But it is claimed that this begs the question. Theists maintain that if human beings existed in a godless universe, they would be essentially different. Yet atheistic moral realists assume without argument that God’s non-existence would make little difference to objective morality.

The critics of atheism have things backwards. Atheists do not assume a moral universe; they find what appears to be one. Atheists and theists both agree that prima facie this is a moral universe with objective moral values. Atheists who are moral realists attempt to show how this appearance is not deceptive and that such a universe is possible without God. They do this by the postulation of moral facts constituted by natural facts. This postulation is not arbitrary but is justified by how well it explains the moral evidence. The burden of proof is on the theist to show otherwise. This position has been defended in books and articles.[28]

Moreover, Copan assumed that a Christian universe entails the intrinsic human worth and dignity of human beings. But this is a very controversial thesis to say the least and has been opposed by Augustine, Calvin, and Barth to name but a few thinkers. For example, followers of Calvin promoted the view that because of original sin human beings are born morally depraved. Indeed, in many Christian churches a necessary condition for salvation is the admission of being a worthless sinner. Although such a view of human nature has some Biblical support (see for example, Romans, Chapter 3), it is hardly one that is compatible with intrinsic human dignity and worth.[29] To be sure, this is not the only view of the matter since the Bible does not speak with one voice.[30] But it is important to stress that Copan did not acknowledge the controversial nature of one of his most basic assumptions.

Another aspect of Copan’s argument deserves special treatment. Copan pointed out that, according to atheism, humans are not made in God’s image but are animals. So it seems unlikely that humans could have objective moral worth and be capable of moral responsibility. This argument has two aspects. First there is the claim that from a theistic perspective humans are made in God’s image. Second, there is the claim that if there is no God, then it is surprising, given human’s animal nature and their evolution from lower animals, that humans have an objective moral worth and moral responsibility.

The thesis that human beings are made in God’s image is difficult to understand let only prove. Humans seem so ungod-like. They are physically weak, cognitively limited, and morally flawed. If God had really attempted to make human beings in His image, we must either conclude that God is a very finite god indeed or else that God failed in His work. But the theistic God is not finite and God cannot fail at anything. How then could humans be made in God’s image? What possibly could this claim amount to?

Moreover, Copan seemed to assume that animals have no moral status and that if we were mere animals we would be without moral worth. But, although animals are not moral agents, many are moral patients and can be morally harmed.[31] The thesis that it is surprising that human beings are moral agents and are capable of moral responsibility has no supporting argument. After all human beings have developed many characteristics that distinguish them from animals, for example, a superior intelligence, advanced linguistic and artistic capabilities. Is it any less surprising given their animal nature that humans have the mathematical, scientific, and technological knowledge which enable them to explore space, to understand many aspects of our universe, to construct elegant mathematical systems, and to build huge skyscrapers, dams, and bridges than that they are capable of moral responsibility? That humans have evolved from lower animals does not mean that they must have only the properties of animals and cannot develop capacities unique to their species.

It would perhaps be surprising if moral responsibility were not a natural property but were fundamentally different from all of the other properties that human beings posses. In such a case, one might wonder where such a unique property came from and might find its occurrence ontologically strange. But if naturalism is true, moral properties are constituted by natural properties in the same way that intelligence and artistic ability are. According to naturalism there are no ontological elements in the universe that exist over and above natural properties. Of course, whether naturalism is true is another issue, but nothing said by Copan provides any support against it.


Copan’s critique of atheistic metaethics is mistaken. Moreover, his defense of a theistic based ethics is unsound. In short, he gave no reason to reject atheism and accept theism.


[1] Paul Copan, “Can Michael Martin Be A Moral Realist? Sic et Non,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 45-71.

[2] Michael Martin, “Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape,” (<URL:/library/modern/michael_martin/rape.html>, July 23, 1997).

[3] Copan, op. cit., p. 46.

[4] Michael Martin, Atheism (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), chapter 12.

[5] Theodore M. Drange, “Incompatible-Property Arguments: A Survey,” Philo, 1, Fall-Winter, 1998 pp. 49-60.

[6] Douglas Walton, “Can an Ancient Argument of Carneades on Cardinal Virtues and Divine Attributes be Used to Disprove the Existence of God?” Philo, 2, Fall-Winter, 1999. pp. 6-21.

[7] See, for example, Roderick Firth, “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer”, Readings in Ethical Theory, Second Edition (ed.) Wilfrid Sellars and John Hospers (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1970), Richard Boyd, “How To Be a Moral Realist,” and Peter Railton, “Moral Realism,” in Moral Discourse and Practice, ed. S. Darwall, A. Gibbard, and P. Railton, (Oxford University Press, 1997), David O. Brink, Moral Realism and The Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 37-39,197-203

[8] Copan, op. cit., p. 51, n. 25

[9] Charles Taliaferro, Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), p. 210.

[10] Copan, op. cit., p.57, n. 46.

[11] Boyd, “How to be a Moral Realist,” p. 122.

[12] Copan, op. cit., p. 48, n.15.

[13] Copan, op. cit., p. 48, n.15, p. 53.

[14] Certainly John Mackie would not agree with Copan since Mackie’s argument for the strangeness of moral states turned on their prescriptive nature and Mackie accepted a moderate mind-body dualism as the best explanation of the facts. Copan cited John Searle’s work to support his case. But although Searle believes that consciousness has special features, he also thinks that it is, “above all, a biological phenomena” and that there is no reason “in principle why we could not build an artificial brain that also causes and realizes consciousness” (Mind, Language and Society (New York: Basic Books, 1998), p. 53.) To be sure, Searle has opposed the thesis that human minds can be understood on the model of a digital computer. However, even this thesis has been defended by well known philosophers of mind such as Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little Brown, 1991, pp. 435-440.)

[15] See Brink, “Moral Realism and The Skeptical Arguments From Disagreement and Queerness,” and Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics. See also Peter Byrne, The Philosophical and Theological Foundations of Ethics (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1999) Sec. Edition, pp. 12-20 for another critique of Mackie’s argument.

[16] Copan, op, cit. , p. 48

[17] Copan, op, cit. , p. 56.

[18] Copan, op. cit., pp. 56-57.

[19] See Theodore Drange, Evil and Nonbelief (Amherest,NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), Martin, Atheism, Part 2

[20] See notes 4,5,6

[21] Some of these will make the probability even higher than 2/3, for example, when more than two varieties of moral realism are distinguished.

[22] Recently such a position has been defended by Paul Rooney in Divine Command Morality, (Brookfield: Aldershot, 1996).

[23] This argument was used by John Frame in our Internet debate. Seehttps://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/martin-frame/

[24] See Martin, Atheism, Chapter 2.

[25] Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman, Religion and Morality (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995), pp. 55-61

[26] Cf. Copan, op. cit., p. 65

[27] Copan, op.cit., pp. 61-62

[28] See note 4.

[29] I am indebted in this paragraph to Doug Krueger’s paper, “Copin’ with Copan: The Defense of Zacharias that Fails,” (<URL:/library/modern/doug_krueger/copin.html>, 1999).

[30] I owe this point to Robert Price in personal correspondence.

[31] See Paul Draper, “Craig’s Case For God’s Existence” (forthcoming in a book being reviewed by Oxford University Press, and being edited by Stan Wallace). I am grateful to Jeff Lowder for pointing this out to me. See also the vast literature on animal rights.

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