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On Mavrodes' Moral Argument for Adopting Religious Belief (2013)

Ryan Stringer

1. Introduction

It is common for both laypersons and philosophers to think that morality provides good grounds for adopting religious belief. For example, some people might think that holding a particular religious belief—such as the belief in a God who guarantees reward for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior—is required for people to exhibit good behavior instead of bad behavior. Other people might think that holding some sort religious belief is required for people to exhibit good behavior instead of bad behavior, where there are many instances of particular religious beliefs that can motivate people to behave well instead of poorly and thereby satisfy this requirement. In either case, the grounds for adopting religious belief are practical: it is the alleged fact that holding a particular religious belief is itself a requirement of good behavior, or that holding a particular religious belief is one option among many that can each satisfy a requirement of good behavior, that warrants its adoption. However, even if holding a particular religious belief were to live up to either of these rationales[1], neither would provide any grounds for thinking that this belief is accurate. Religious belief need not be true to be useful or necessary for getting people to behave well instead of poorly, and it being useful or necessary in this way does not make it more likely to be true than false.

In addition to these practical grounds, there are two different ways in which morality is commonly regarded as providing epistemic grounds for religious belief (i.e., grounds for thinking such belief to be true). One is epistemological: our knowledge of right and wrong requires (or entails) the existence of an all-knowing God to inform us about the moral facts. The other is metaphysical: the truth of moral realism, or the existence of objective moral properties, facts, and obligations, requires (or entails) the existence of God.

Though I believe that all three of these lines of thinking are mistaken, I will not evaluate any of them in this paper. Instead, my focus will be on a unique attempt to vindicate the idea that morality provides good grounds for adopting religious belief by philosopher George Mavrodes in his paper "Religion and the Queerness of Morality."[2]. Although Mavrodes' attempt is different from those mentioned above, it is similar to the metaphysical one.[3] Specifically, he argues that in a nonreligious world—one where religion fails—morality is odd or absurd, and thus fails as well.[4] But if, as he hopes, we recognize that morality is not odd or absurd, then we must reject a nonreligious worldview in favor of a religious one—like Mavrodes' Christian worldview—that does not result in morality being odd or absurd.[5]

Although this is essentially how Mavrodes presents his argument early on in his essay, there is actually more packed into it than what appearances suggest. And in order to unpack the argument, I will formally reconstruct it and explain my reconstruction. The argument formally constructed, then, runs as follows:

(P1) Moral realism is true.
(P2) If the actual world is a nonreligious one and moral realism is true, then morality is odd or absurd.
(P3) Morality is not odd or absurd.
(E1) It is not the case that the actual world is a nonreligious one and that moral realism is true. (from P2 & P3)
(E2) Either (a) the actual world is not a nonreligious one or (b) moral realism is not true. (from E1)
(C1) The actual world is not a nonreligious one. (from P1 & E2)
(E3) No nonreligious worldview is true. (from C1)
(E4) Some religious worldview is true. (from E3)
(C2) Some religious worldview that does not result in morality being odd or absurd is true. (from E4 & P3)

The first premise, P1, is the assumption of moral realism, which again is the view that there are objective moral properties, facts, and obligations (i.e., that morality is objective). Although Mavrodes does not use the term 'moral realism', it is clear that he assumes it (in fact, he needs it for his attempt to vindicate the idea that morality provides good grounds for adopting religious belief to even get off the ground). First of all, early on in his paper he "takes it to be an important feature of the actual world that human beings exist in it and that in it their actions fall, at least sometimes, within the sphere of morality—that is, they have moral obligations to act (or to refrain from acting) in certain ways."[6] These obligations are 'final obligations'—they are "the obligations that a particular person has in some concrete circumstance at a particular place and time, when all the aspects of the situation have been taken into account."[7] These obligations are clearly genuine or objective ones: they are ones that are really there—there independently of our evaluative attitudes or commitments—and that bind people to act in accordance with them. And this is moral realism. Second, as should become clear shortly, the proper interpretation of Mavrodes' two central claims makes it evident that he assumes moral realism.

The second premise, P2, asserts that the conjunction of "the actual world is a nonreligious one" and "moral realism is true" entails that "morality is odd or absurd." Although Mavrodes does not explicitly formulate this premise as such, his main thesis—that morality would be odd or absurd in a nonreligious world—is perfectly captured by this premise. First, Mavrodes knows that morality needs to be realistically construed in order for it to be odd or absurd in a nonreligious world. When trying to convey the oddness or absurdity of morality in a nonreligious world, Mavrodes discusses accounts of morality that would neutralize this oddness or absurdity, and these accounts of morality are antirealist ones. For example, if judgments about moral obligations are to be analyzed "in terms of the speaker's attitude or feeling toward some action, and/or his attempt or inclination to incite a similar attitude in someone else"[8], then morality will not be odd or absurd in a nonreligious world. This is also the case if judgments about moral obligations are to be understood "purely in terms of the feelings, attitudes, and so forth of the subject of the judgment."[9] But since antirealist accounts of morality would neutralize the oddness or absurdity that Mavrodes thinks morality would have in a nonreligious world, a realist account of morality is the only remaining option that would give Mavrodes what he is after. Consequently, his main thesis that morality is odd or absurd in a nonreligious world is the same as claiming that objective morality, or morality realistically construed, is odd or absurd in a nonreligious world. And this, in turn, is nothing other than claiming that morality's oddness or absurdity will be a consequence of placing objective morality, or moral realism, in a nonreligious world, which is exactly what P2 says. Since Mavrodes spends the majority of his essay trying to establish this premise, it will receive the most treatment here as well.

The third premise, P3, is the straightforward denial of the consequent of P2, which Mavrodes essentially asserts when he hopes that we will simply recognize that morality is not odd or absurd.[10] And like P2, P3 must be understood as making a claim about objective morality, or morality realistically construed. It cannot be understood as being made from an antirealist perspective, since this would not capture precisely what Mavrodes is committed to when he asserts it.

E1 is the negation of P2's antecedent, and it is clearly entailed by P2 and P3 via modus tollens. E1 then entails E2 via DeMorgan's Law: if the conjunction of "the actual world is a nonreligious one" and "moral realism is true" is false, then at least one of the conjuncts must be false. The first conclusion, C1, then follows from P1 and E2 via disjunctive syllogism.

Next we come to E3, which is straightforwardly entailed by C1 because they are just different ways of saying the same thing. E4 is in turn straightforwardly entailed by E3: if no nonreligious worldview is true, then some religious worldview has to be true. Finally we have the second conclusion, C2, which follows from E4 and P3: given that some religious worldview is true and that morality is not odd or absurd, the true religious worldview cannot be one that would result in morality being odd or absurd on pain of contradiction. It must instead be one that does not result in morality being odd or absurd.

Though it is a valid argument, it is my contention that Mavrodes' argument nonetheless fails. Specifically, I think that even if P1 is true, P2 is a dubious premise and P3 is both question-begging and quite plausibly false. So even if morality is objective, Mavrodes has not vindicated the idea that it provides good grounds for adopting religious belief.

2. The Assumption of Moral Realism

As indicated above, and as Mavrodes himself recognizes, a crucial assumption of his argument is that moral realism is true, which is a highly contentious metaethical position. If there are good grounds for rejecting or not accepting moral realism, then his argument fails immediately. Now I suspect that many nontheists believe that there are such grounds for rejecting or not accepting moral realism, and thus that Mavrodes' argument can be dismissed on these grounds alone. However, I think that nontheists should not rest content with this, and should instead grant Mavrodes' assumption that moral realism is true. For one thing, moral realism is an intuitively plausible position that may very well be true despite the reasons that people have for rejecting or not accepting it. In fact, moral realism has multiple able defenders that present strong opposition to the supposedly good grounds for rejecting or not accepting it.[11]

Moreover, moral realism is the default position in ethics. Even the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie, who took great pains to argue against moral realism, acknowledged it as the default position in ethics.[12] For one thing, it is generally presupposed by our ordinary moral practices of making moral judgments, deliberating about moral decisions, and thinking that people can be morally mistaken or correct and morally ignorant or knowledgeable. It is also generally presupposed in normative ethics and applied ethics; for they are, respectively, concerned with discovering the correct moral theory and the correct moral position for specific moral issues. Now the fact that moral realism is generally presupposed does not signal the truth of the view, but this general presupposition can be based on phenomenological considerations. Two are notable here. The first is that things really do seem to possess objective, stance-independent moral properties. For instance, when we experience injustice as the result of someone else's action or of some social policy or institution, it seems that the action, policy, or institution itself is unjust; and it is so independently of our evaluative attitudes. Or when we are deliberating about what course of action to take, we are doing so by locating and weighing the features of our options that really are right-making or wrong-making features. The second is the experience of recognizing, and being constrained by, what seem to be genuine moral obligations.[13] Of course, these phenomenological grounds are not decisive, but they are sufficient to create a reasonable presumption in favor of moral realism.[14]

Finally, a nonreligious worldview cannot be robust if it is threatened by the default position in ethics; and yet any such worldview would be so threatened if the only way to rebut Mavrodes' argument was to find fault with moral realism. So in order to protect the robustness of nonreligious worldviews, we must grant the assumption that moral realism is true and show that Mavrodes' argument still fails.

3. The Suggestion of Christianity

Before arguing that Mavrodes' argument indeed fails even if moral realism is true, I want to briefly discuss his recommendation that we adopt a Christian worldview to avoid the oddness or absurdity that morality would allegedly have if this world were a nonreligious one. An objection to this suggestion is that there are several possible religious worldviews that can avoid this alleged oddness or absurdity, yet he provides no grounds for adopting a Christian worldview in particular over any other religious worldview that can cut the mustard. At best, all that Mavrodes has shown is that some religious worldview that does not result in morality being odd or absurd is correct, not that a particular religious worldview like Christianity is correct. Thus his suggestion that we adopt a Christian worldview in response to his argument is logically arbitrary and unwarranted.

On the other hand, even if Mavrodes' argument gives us no grounds for adopting Christianity in particular, it would still, if successful, show that at least some religious worldview (that does not result in morality being odd or absurd) is correct. But if some such worldview is correct, then why not adopt Christianity? After all, such a worldview does at least as good of a job as any other alternative when it comes to avoiding the alleged oddness or absurdity that morality would have if this world were a nonreligious one. So perhaps Mavrodes' suggestion that we adopt Christianity in virtue of his argument is warranted despite its logical arbitrariness.

However, I think that Mavrodes' argument, even if successful, does not warrant the adoption of a Christian worldview because Christianity claims that certain things are true that have nothing whatsoever to do with ensuring that objective morality is not odd or absurd (things about Jesus, for instance). In fact, I think that Mavrodes' argument cannot even warrant the adoption of traditional theism; for even if God were a being that could do as good of a job as anything else when it comes to ensuring that morality is not odd or absurd, Mavrodes' argument provides no reason at all to favor traditional theism over any other religious worldview that could just as well ensure moral normalcy.

But even if Mavrodes' argument does not warrant the adoption of Christianity or traditional theism, it would still, if successful, force us to accept that no nonreligious worldview is true, and that instead some religious worldview that does not result in morality being odd or absurd is true. So even if Mavrodes' suggestion to adopt Christianity is unwarranted, his attempt to vindicate the idea that morality provides good grounds for adopting religious belief remains unscathed. In order to thwart this attempt, it still needs to be shown that Mavrodes' argument fails even if moral realism is true. I take on this task in the next two sections.

4. Establishing that Objective Morality is Odd or Absurd in a Nonreligious World

As mentioned above, Mavrodes spends the majority of his time defending P2, which is the same thing as establishing that objective morality is odd or absurd in a nonreligious world. And as Mavrodes acknowledges, the success or failure of his project is in large part a function of his success or failure in this regard.[15] So the first step in evaluating Mavrodes' argument is to determine whether he succeeds in establishing the oddness or absurdity of objective morality in a nonreligious world.

We must begin with the concept of a "nonreligious benefit"[16], which is one that a person can accrue in a nonreligious world. Sexual gratification, eating good food, completing a dissertation, falling in love, a contented old age—these are examples of nonreligious benefits. In general, nonreligious benefits are the everyday and rare benefits that we are familiar with here on earth. Now this is not to say that nonreligious benefits are only found in nonreligious worlds—the benefits mentioned above are found in religious worlds as well as nonreligious ones. What makes such benefits nonreligious ones is that they are the only ones that people can accrue in a nonreligious world. Going to heaven when one dies, for instance, is not such a benefit because there is no afterlife in a nonreligious world.

Next we bring in moral realism in a nonreligious world: we place ourselves in a nonreligious world and are subject to genuine, objective moral obligations to do certain things. But since we are in a nonreligious world, there are no religious benefits—like the reward of going to Heaven—that we can accrue by fulfilling our moral obligations. We can instead only accrue nonreligious benefits by fulfilling our moral obligations. But then there will be many cases in which the benefits of fulfilling a moral obligation will be outweighed by the benefits of not doing so, which in turn means that there will be many cases in which fulfilling a moral obligation will result in a loss of good for us. This will be true of the rare instances in which we must risk death or serious injury to perform a duty, as well as some mundane cases that involve repaying a debt, keeping a promise, not stealing, and so on.[17] So if the actual world is a nonreligious one and moral realism is true, then there are cases in which we are (a) morally obligated to perform an action that will result in a loss of good for us and thus (b) properly regarded as defective in a serious and important way and subject to adverse judgment if we do not willingly do what results in a loss of good for us. But surely these moral obligations requiring us to do what results in a loss of good for us and their associated judgments—which constitute part of the moral enterprise—are odd or absurd[18]; hence the oddness or absurdity of objective morality in a nonreligious world.

How could one respond to this argument? One way would be to contest the claim that objective morality in a nonreligious world generates cases in which fulfilling a moral obligation will result in a loss of good for us. For one thing, Mavrodes does not mention that being a morally good person as well as the awareness of this are nonreligious benefits. Generally speaking, doing those things that constitute success in important endeavors and the awareness of such success are both intrinsically beneficial things. For instance, doing the things that constitute success when it comes to being a good spouse, being a good parent, being a good friend, being a good doctor, and so on, as well as the awareness that one has been successful by doing these things, are both intrinsically beneficial. And it is no different when it comes to succeeding in being a morally good person and being aware of this success. But this is a significant omission because in mundane cases where fulfilling a moral obligation results in a loss of good for us without factoring in these benefits, the loss is probably not very high, and thus it is plausible to suppose that there is actually no loss of good for us when the neglected benefits are factored in. So it is plausible to suppose that there are no mundane cases in a nonreligious world in which fulfilling a moral obligation results in a loss of good for us.

Now what about the rare cases in which we must risk death or serious injury to perform a duty? Surely it is more likely that a loss of good for us will result from performing these duties, right? Well, yes—if we do in fact have such duties. But why should we think that we do? Why should we think that such rare cases actually occur? Instead, these rare cases are probably opportunities for what philosophers call "supererogation"—going above and beyond the call of duty. If so, then these cases do not involve any moral obligation to risk death or serious injury, and thus cannot be cases in which fulfilling such an obligation results in a loss of good for us. So it is also plausible to suppose that there are no rare cases in a nonreligious world in which fulfilling a moral obligation results in a loss of good for us. But if neither mundane nor rare cases provide a basis for maintaining that objective morality in a nonreligious world generates cases in which fulfilling a moral obligation will result in a loss of good for us, then there is no longer any basis for thinking that objective morality is odd or absurd in a nonreligious world, and thus no longer any basis for thinking that P2 is true.

However, Mavrodes could respond forcefully to this first line of argument in at least two ways. First, he could insist, quite plausibly, that we need to restrict the nonreligious benefits of being a morally good person and the corresponding awareness of it to a certain group of people. After all, he might say, some people do not care about morality, and there are surely many people that will not get any pleasure or satisfaction or receive any other noticeable benefit from acting morally and knowing that they acted as such. Second, Mavrodes could claim, again quite plausibly, that this first line of response to his argument underestimates the good that we can lose in mundane cases. More specifically, he could claim that there will inevitably be at least some mundane cases where fulfilling a moral obligation results in a loss of benefits that is not only quite high, but high enough to outweigh whatever benefits one might get from doing as the obligation bids. Either way, people will still face mundane situations in which fulfilling a moral obligation will result in a loss of good for them; so P2 is still true.[19]

Although there are still ways to rule out people facing these situations[20], let's go ahead and suppose that objective morality in a nonreligious world does generate both mundane and rare cases in which fulfilling a moral obligation will result in a loss of good for us. Even so, we could question the oddness or absurdity of the moral obligations requiring us to do what will result in a loss of good for us and their associated judgments. For example, we could argue in an Aristotelian fashion that these cases are attributable to morally defective characters that result from either (a) insufficient moral education, (b) character dispositions inimical to the moral enterprise, or (c) both insufficient moral education and unfavorable character dispositions. For if someone does have favorable dispositions and receives a proper moral upbringing, then he or she will fully internalize moral values and thus will have a virtuous character. Put in non-Aristotelian terms, morality will have become very important or valuable to that person. And since it is beneficial to succeed in things that we regard as very important or valuable and to be aware of this success, it will be beneficial to succeed in the moral enterprise and to know that we have done so. But if, on the other hand, someone does not receive a proper moral upbringing, or does not have the favorable dispositions needed to become a virtuous person, then this person will not sufficiently internalize moral values as their own and thus cannot receive the benefits from acting morally. And since they cannot get these benefits, they will inevitably face situations in which they are morally obligated to do what will result in a loss of good for them.[21] But in a nonreligious world there is nothing odd or absurd about dispositions unfavorable to the moral enterprise, impoverished moral environments, or the failure of education; so there is nothing odd or absurd about having the moral obligations envisaged by Mavrodes that result from such things. Also, there is nothing odd or absurd about the judgments associated with failing to follow these obligations. For the failure to follow these obligations, like having the obligations in the first place, will be the result of a defective moral character: if one has not sufficiently internalized moral values, then one will not care enough about morality to respect and be properly moved by its dictates. But this certainly is a serious and important way of being defective—we should sufficiently care about and respect moral dictates. Thus, properly regarding the individuals that fail to follow these dictates as defective in a serious and important way makes perfect sense. Moreover, properly subjecting these individuals to adverse judgment for failing to follow these moral dictates makes perfect sense: not only did they do something wrong, but subjecting them to such adverse judgment makes improvement in their moral character, thinking, and behavior more likely (though maybe not much more likely). Consequently, P2 is still a dubious premise.

Furthermore, even if this Aristotelian line of argument were problematic in some way, the fact of the matter is that we are talking about objective morality in a nonreligious world—a world where there is no cosmic being to ensure that the world is ultimately just, rational, or even sensible. We might at times be thrown into difficult situations—like those that seem to be unfairly or unreasonably demanding—but this is not odd or absurd if there is no supernatural being "behind the scenes" to ensure that things are easy, fair, and reasonable. So even if people have moral obligations requiring them to do what will result in a loss of good for them, this will not be odd or absurd in a nonreligious world. Also, there is still nothing odd or absurd about the judgments associated with failing to follow these obligations. For the people that fail in this manner can fall under one of two categories: either they will have fully internalized moral values, or they will not have. If they have fully internalized moral values, and thus are strongly committed to much more than their own good, then their failure to act in accordance with these moral obligations must be due to some sort of irrationality or weakness of will. But this is still a serious and important way of being defective, even if it is understandable or only temporary. So properly regarding these individuals as defective in a serious and important way makes sense. And again, properly subjecting these individuals to adverse judgment for their failure makes sense: they did something wrong and acted against their own virtuous characters. In fact, since these individuals have fully internalized moral values, they will agree with this and subject themselves to the same kind of judgment. Then there are the individuals that have not sufficiently internalized moral values; and it would still make sense, for the same reasons given above, to properly regard these individuals as defective in a serious and important way, and to properly subject them to adverse judgment for failing to follow moral obligations requiring them to do what results in a loss of good for them. Therefore, P2 is still a dubious premise.

On the other hand, there is a way for Mavrodes to avoid these counterarguments. Though he explicitly refers to the alleged oddness or absurdity of having moral obligations requiring us to do what will result in a loss of good for us[22], he also suggests that it is the obligations themselves that are odd or absurd.[23] And this latter suggestion is immune to the counterarguments above since the obligations themselves can still be odd or absurd even if having them, as the counterarguments contend, is not odd or absurd. So objective morality in a nonreligious world will still place odd or absurd moral obligations on people, and thus P2 is still true.

However, the oddness or absurdity of these obligations is still questionable. Consider first that moral obligations by nature bind capable agents regardless of their individual desires, interests, values, cares, and commitments—in Kantian terminology, they are 'categorical imperatives'. They are only concerned about right and wrong, not the individual's own good (the latter may be relevant to the former, but it is not the only thing relevant).[24] Thus, it is not clear why those that require people to do what will result in a loss of good for them are odd or absurd. Something similar is true about the adverse judgments that people are properly subjected to by failing to follow moral obligations: they apply to people only in virtue of wrongdoing. So again, it makes sense to properly subject those that fail to follow moral obligations requiring them to do what will result in a loss of good for them to adverse judgment. Consequently, P2 is still a dubious premise.

As far as I can tell, there is one more way to defend the claim that moral obligations requiring people to do what will result in a loss of good for them are odd or absurd. Specifically, such obligations still seem to be downright unreasonable for requiring that we bring about our own loss of good, and this unreasonableness makes them odd or absurd. But despite the intuitive appeal of the premise that moral obligations requiring people to do what will result in a loss of good for them are unreasonable obligations (let's call this premise U), much more work needs to be done before it can serve as the ground for P2. First of all, for these obligations to be truly unreasonable, they must demand that we act in accordance with a set of reasons that is not stronger than other sets of reasons prescribing alternate courses of action. For if they do not do so, and instead demand that we act in accordance with a set of reasons that is stronger than all of the other sets of reasons prescribing alternate courses of action, they will not be unreasonable. But this then tells us how these obligations can turn out to be reasonable: even though doing as they bid will result in a loss of good for us, it could nonetheless be the case that there is a set of reasons in favor of doing as they bid that is stronger than all of the other sets of reasons backing alternative courses of action. Of course, the mere possibility of moral obligations requiring us to do what will result in a loss of good for us being backed by the strongest set of reasons does not guarantee that all of them will be backed in this way (which is required to fully undermine premise U). However, there are views that would secure this guarantee. One such view would be the conjunction of (a) a teleological moral theory in which one's duty is defined as maximizing objective goodness and (b) a value-based conception of practical reasons, where our reasons for action are based on what is objectively good and not just on our own good.[25] If such a view were true, then every obligatory action would be backed by the strongest set of reasons: since (1) the action would maximize objective goodness by definition and (2) the obligated person's reasons would be based in the realization of objective goodness, (3) the action would have to be backed by the strongest set of reasons. There would thus be no room for unreasonable moral obligations at all, and a fortiori no room for unreasonable moral obligations requiring us to do what will result in a loss of good for us.

Another way to secure the guarantee that moral obligations are backed by the strongest set of reasons is to maintain that the mere fact that an action is obligatory is itself a sufficient reason to do it. This view would not rely on a teleological moral theory or a value-based conception of practical reasons, but would instead locate the strongest set of reasons to do as a moral obligation bids directly in the obligatoriness of the action itself, where this obligatoriness is not grounded in the good. So, again, there would be no room for unreasonable moral obligations, and thus no room for unreasonable moral obligations requiring us to do what will result in a loss of good for us.

Furthermore, on either of the views sketched here (or on any that is relevantly similar to them), there would again be nothing odd or absurd about the judgments associated with failing to follow obligations that will result in a loss of one's good. Since these obligations are backed by the strongest set of reasons, those that do not follow them will not have been properly moved by the reasons, which means that these individuals were irrational.[26] But again, being irrational is a serious and important way of being defective; so it makes sense to properly regard these individuals as defective in a serious and important way. It also makes sense to properly subject them to adverse judgment: in addition to doing something wrong, they were not properly moved by the reasons like they should have been.

I do not mean to suggest that one of these views must be true, and thus that premise U is false. Teleological moral theories, the value-based conception of practical reasons, the claim that an action is our duty constitutes a sufficient reason to do it—these are all controversial things that call for extended defense. My point here is only that such views are philosophically respectable ones that must be adequately dealt with in order to fully substantiate premise U. These views—as well as any other that delivers the same result—cannot simply be ignored or dismissed out of hand; they must be rejected on solid philosophical grounds. And until this is done, P2 cannot be grounded in premise U.

So far we have seen that P2 has not been substantiated on the grounds that objective morality in a nonreligious world inevitably generates moral obligations that require people to do what will result in a loss of good for them. However, Mavrodes has more to say in defense of P2. In addition to what has been examined thus far, Mavrodes also claims that objective morality is odd or absurd in a nonreligious world because it is superficial in such a world—i.e., reality has no deep commitment to morality in such a world. Now this perplexing claim is either another way of describing the oddness or absurdity of objective morality based on moral obligations that require us to do what results in a loss of good for us, or it is another way in which objective morality is odd or absurd in a nonreligious world. Unfortunately, Mavrodes is not even sure which one is correct; for he says "there are two related ways in which morality is queer in a Russellian world. Or maybe they are better construed as two aspects of the queerness we have been exploring."[27] Moreover, sometimes he implicitly suggests one or the other. For example, he briefly mentions the idea of reality having a deep commitment to morality in the context of bringing out the oddness or absurdity of moral obligations that require us to do what will result in a loss of good for us. Specifically, he mentions Kant's claim that morality must presuppose a God that can make happiness correspond to virtue, and then says: "I suspect that what we have in Kant is the recognition that there cannot be, in any 'reasonable' way, a moral demand upon me, unless reality itself is committed to morality in some deep way. It makes sense only if there is a moral demand on the world too and only if reality will in the end satisfy that demand."[28] This suggests that "reality's deep commitment to morality" refers to its guaranteeing that an agent's virtuous behavior is conducive to his or her good, which would eliminate unreasonable moral obligations that require us to do what results in a loss of good for us. Thus Mavrodes seems to be implying here that the superficiality of objective morality in a nonreligious world is merely another way of describing the alleged fact that there are moral obligations requiring us to do what results in a loss of good for us.

However, elsewhere Mavrodes suggests that objective morality is superficial in a nonreligious world in a different sense.[29] He begins by briefly discussing Plato, who thought that 'the Good' was a fundamental aspect of reality itself. But in a nonreligious world, where the most fundamental aspect of reality is physical stuff and natural laws, values and their associated obligations cannot be deep in the same way—they must instead be superficial phenomena. So the superficiality of objective morality in a nonreligious world here seems to refer to the metaphysical status of moral values and obligations themselves—it has nothing to do with their relation to human beings.[30]

Once again, it is not clear whether the claim that objective morality in a nonreligious world is odd or absurd because it is superficial is (1) another way of describing the oddness or absurdity of objective morality based on moral obligations that require us to do what results in a loss of good for us, or (2) another way in which objective morality is odd or absurd in a nonreligious world. Now if the first option is correct, then we are not dealing with a new claim that needs to be addressed—the criticisms of P2 supplied thus far are sufficient. Therefore, the only thing left to evaluate is whether the second option substantiates P2. Does it?

On one interpretation of moral values and obligations, Mavrodes is right to claim that they are superficial in a nonreligious world. This is because here "moral values" and "moral obligations" refer to the moral properties or features of things, and these properties/features are determined by the nonmoral properties/features of the things. Moral values—like moral rightness or wrongness—are properties of actions, and these properties are determined by the nonmoral properties of the actions. For example, if it were the morally right action to pick up your friend tomorrow from the airport, then there would be some nonmoral property of the action—it would satisfy the promise you made to pick her up, or it would easily satisfy her need for help—that is responsible for the action's moral rightness. Similarly, moral obligations are features of the states of affairs that contain them, and these features are determined by the nonmoral features of these states of affairs. So if it were the case that you have a moral obligation to pick up your friend tomorrow from the airport, then there would be some nonmoral feature of the state of affairs that you find yourself in that is responsible for the reality of the obligation (you made a promise yesterday to pick her up, or she needs your help). However, there is nothing odd or absurd about moral properties or features being "superficial" in this sense of being determined by more fundamental properties or features. In fact, this is how contemporary philosophers typically conceive of moral properties/features—they are determined by the nonmoral properties/features of things in the sense that the former supervene upon the latter.[31] But again, there is nothing odd or absurd about certain things having certain moral properties or features because of their nonmoral properties or features, or the supervenience of the moral on the nonmoral. In fact, if you think about it, it would actually be odd if it were not the case that things had certain moral properties or features because of their nonmoral properties or features, or if the moral did not supervene on the nonmoral. For then there would be no intelligible reasons why certain things had the moral properties or features that they do. Things would instead have moral properties or features randomly, or perhaps for reasons that do not make sense. The upshot, then, is that even if moral values and obligations are superficial in this sense in a nonreligious world, this does not substantiate P2.[32]

On another interpretation of moral values and obligations, Mavrodes is wrong to claim that objective moral values and obligations are superficial in a nonreligious world. This is because "moral values" here refer to moral facts or principles that state the conditions in which certain actions are right or wrong. Roughly speaking, the form of these facts or principles is something like "In circumstances C, action A is right." But these facts or principles are not superficial at all—they are metaphysically necessary truths that have the same status as the laws of logic or principles of mathematics.[33] Such moral facts or principles would be deep in any world—religious or nonreligious. Then we have moral obligations, and they are only slightly different from the facts or principles. Roughly speaking again, the form of these obligations is something like "In circumstances C, do action A." So like moral facts or principles, moral obligations are metaphysically necessary truths that are not superficial. Therefore, moral values and obligations are not odd or absurd in a nonreligious world in virtue of their purported superficiality.

Overall, then, the charge that objective morality is superficial in a nonreligious world does not substantiate P2. Consequently, P2 is still a dubious claim, which means that Mavrodes' argument fails even if moral realism is true.

5. Recognizing that Objective Morality is Not Odd or Absurd in the Actual World

For the sake of argument, though, let's suppose that P2 is true after all. And let's do so in the most plausible way: let's suppose that P2 is true on the grounds that the moral obligations requiring us to do what results in a loss of good for us that are generated by objective morality in a nonreligious world are indeed odd or absurd. Even so, the truth of P3 is just as important for the success of Mavrodes' argument, yet he does not spend any time trying to defend it. Instead, he says early on that he hopes we will simply recognize that morality is not odd or absurd in the actual world.[34] But this is question-begging in at least two ways. First of all, it is certainly not clear that P3 is true or even more plausible than its negation; so the fact that Mavrodes cannot offer any argument or evidence for P3 raises the obvious question of why we should accept it. Furthermore, since P1 and P2 are being taken as true at this point in the dialectic, for someone to simply "recognize" that P3 is also true, he or she must already be conceiving of the world from a religious point of view that ensures that morality is not odd or absurd.[35] Thus the brute acceptance of P3, given the truth of P1 and P2, requires the prior acceptance of the very thing that Mavrodes is trying to force us to accept in virtue of his argument.[36]

Worse still for Mavrodes' argument, the falsity of P3 is quite plausible. He says of objective moral obligations that make the loss of good for us our duty, "Perhaps the best thing to say is that were it a fact that we had such obligations, then the world that included such a fact would be absurd—we would be living in a crazy world."[37] But it is cliché to point out that we do live in a crazy world. Think of the senseless violence, the crazy people, and the crazy things that people believe and do—there are already many aspects of this world that make it a crazy one. This coheres very nicely with, and makes quite plausible, the falsity of P3.[38] Of course, Mavrodes might have a different sense of "crazy" in mind from the normal one. But if so, he owes us a definition of what he means here that does not make P3 look false. And if he is simply using "crazy" to mean "absurd," he faces a similar problem: there are many aspects of the world that make it look absurd, and so Mavrodes needs to provide us with a specific definition of what he means by "absurd" that does not make P3 look false.

Furthermore, the plausibility of P3's falsity is bolstered by (1) the prevalence of the causes I offered above for why people might have odd or absurd moral obligations as well as (2) the nature of moral obligations. Since dispositions unfavorable to the moral enterprise, impoverished moral environments, and the failure of education can result in people having the odd or absurd moral obligations envisaged by Mavrodes, it is quite plausible to suppose that people do have these obligations in virtue of such prevalent things. Also, since moral obligations bind people regardless of their individual interests and are only concerned about right and wrong instead of the individual's own good, it is quite plausible that some of them actually demand that people do what will result in a loss of good for them.

Because P3 is both question-begging and quite plausibly false, Mavrodes' argument still fails even if moral realism is true.

6. Conclusion

I have argued that even if moral realism is true, Mavrodes' moral argument for adopting religious belief fails. P2 of the argument is dubious in two general ways. First, it rests on the questionable claim that objective morality in a nonreligious world generates cases in which fulfilling a moral obligation will result in a loss of good for us. Second, from the moral obligations requiring us to do what will result in a loss of good for us and their associated judgments it dubiously infers that such obligations and judgments are odd or absurd. Furthermore, P2 could not be substantiated by the charge that objective morality is superficial in a nonreligious world. So P2 ends up being a dubious claim, and this is sufficient for the failure of Mavrodes' argument. And even if P2 were true after all, the argument still fails because of P3. Since this premise is assumed without defense and its acceptance requires the prior acceptance of a religious worldview that ensures moral normalcy, it is question-begging. Moreover, this premise is quite plausibly false in virtue of (1) the many aspects of the world that cohere nicely with its falsity, (2) the prevalence of the things I proposed as causes of people having odd or absurd moral obligations, and (3) the nature of moral obligations. Given the failure of his argument, I conclude that Mavrodes has not vindicated the idea that morality provides good grounds for adopting religious belief.[39]

Notes

[1] As I argue in my paper "The Value of Atheism" (2010) on the Secular Web, it is at most true that religious belief is required for only a small number of people to exhibit good behavior.

[2] George Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality" in Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion ed. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986): 213-226.

[3] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 215: "My interest is closer to ... that of deducing religion from morality. (I am not quite satisfied with this way of putting it)." Mavrodes is not satisfied with describing his aim as "deducing religion from morality" because he does not claim that religion deductively follows from morality per se. He instead acknowledges that the failure of religion is logically consistent with morality, which means that religion cannot be strictly deduced from morality. However, his aim is very close to what is normally meant by "deducing religion from morality" because he wants to deduce religion from morality with a particular status.

[4] It should be noted that Mavrodes is using the word "fails" in two different senses here. When he talks about religion failing, he just means that religious claims are systematically false. But when he talks about morality failing, he is referring to its alleged oddness or absurdity, where this in turn does not refer to, imply, or even suggest the systematic falsity of moral claims. In fact, the oddness or absurdity that morality purportedly has in a nonreligious world actually depends upon the assumption of moral realism, which entails that some moral claims are true. Exactly what Mavrodes means by morality being odd or absurd, and thus "failing," in a nonreligious world will be discussed later on in section 4.

[5] Although the suggestion to adopt Christianity to avoid the oddness or absurdity of morality does not appear until the end of his paper, Mavrodes clearly lays out the basic elements of his moral argument against nonreligious worldviews in the first full paragraph on p. 215, where he says that he (a) will try to portray the odd status that morality would have in a nonreligious world and (b) hopes that we will recognize that morality does not have this odd status in the actual world. From the odd status of morality in a nonreligious world and the alleged fact that morality does not have this odd status, it deductively follows that we must reject a nonreligious worldview in favor of a religious one that does not have the same defect as nonreligious worldviews allegedly do. This is basically what Mavrodes means when he concludes the paragraph by saying "it will perhaps be obvious that the 'world-view' amendments required would move substantially toward a religious position."

[6] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 216.

[7] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 217.

[8] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 218.

[9] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 218.

[10] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 215.

[11] For example, see: David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defense (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).

[12] J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1977).

[13] Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, p. 8, 24.

[14] In "The Autonomy of Ethics" in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ed. Michael Martin (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), David O. Brink offers the following argument for treating moral realism as the default position in ethics: "Moral judgments express normative claims about what we should do or care about. As such, they presuppose standards of behavior and concern that purport to be correct, that could and should guide conduct and concern, and that we might fail to accept or live up to. Normativity, therefore, presupposes fallibility, and fallibility implies objectivity" (p. 149). Unfortunately, this argument does not seem all that compelling, for we can have normativity and fallibility without actual objectivity. All we need for normativity and fallibility is a moral standard that can function like an objective standard, and a stipulated or constructed moral standard can do this job. Nevertheless, we should follow Brink's advice and treat moral realism as "a kind of default position or working hypothesis" (p. 149).

[15] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 218.

[16] Mavrodes uses the terms "Russellian benefit" and "Russellian world" to denote what I am calling a "nonreligious benefit" and a "nonreligious world" because Bertrand Russell's worldview is his template for a nonreligious worldview. Since Mavrodes' argument is intended to take down nonreligious worldviews in general, and not Russell in particular, I will stick with talking about nonreligious benefits and nonreligious worlds.

[17] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 217.

[18] It is important to note that if moral realism were false and moral obligations were a matter of convention or a function of our attitudes, then there would be nothing odd or absurd about cases in which conditions (a) and (b) are met because there is nothing odd or absurd about humans being responsible for something odd or absurd. This is why moral realism is crucial for bringing out the alleged oddness or absurdity of morality in a nonreligious world.

[19] Another way that Mavrodes could try to vindicate P2 would be to contest the reality of supererogation by relying on a moral theory that does not allow room for it. For instance, on act-utilitarianism, where it is one's duty to maximize utility, there is simply no room for supererogation because there is no way to go above and beyond bringing about maximal utility. But if a moral theory like this is true, and there is no room for supererogation, then the reality of rare cases in which people must risk death or serious injury to perform a duty reemerges. So people will still face rare situations in which fulfilling a moral obligation will result in a loss of good for them, and thus P2 is still true. However, even though this route to vindicating P2 could be taken, it is not a very attractive one to take. For the reality of supererogation is one of those seemingly nonnegotiable features of morality that any viable theory must account for such that, if the theory cannot do so, then this is a reason to reject the theory. Now this general conception of morality could be mistaken—indeed, theories like act-utilitarianism imply that this is the case. But this is a highly revisionary conclusion, and it should not be accepted just because some useful moral theory implies it.

[20] For example, according to ethical egoism, the only moral principle is to do what best promotes one's own advantage. But this implies that only what results in a gain of good for oneself would be morally obligated of us, and this in turn implies that we would never be morally obligated to do what results in a loss of good for us. However, this would not be a very good way to solve the problem, as ethical egoism is a highly problematic view (see note 24). Perhaps a more plausible way to solve it would be to adopt an Aristotelian conception of morality where the good life for all humans is cashed out in terms of being virtuous. On such a view, fulfilling a moral obligation always counts towards improving our lives—it never counts as a loss of good—and so there would be no room for us to face situations in which fulfilling a moral obligation would result in a loss of good for us. Yet this kind of an Aristotelian move will not work here either; for surely there is much more to the good life than being virtuous, even if this turns out to be an important component of the good life.

[21] To strengthen this explanation, we could maintain that one of the functions of moral education is to eliminate these unfortunate situations as much as possible.

[22] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 218.

[23] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 219.

[24] I am of course assuming that ethical egoism is false here, but this is a very safe assumption to make. As William Frankena points out, ethical egoism just does not seem to count as a kind of morality at all. And as James Rachels points out, ethical egoism is morally problematic in the same way that racism is: just as racism unacceptably draws a morally significant line between races, such that one race is more important than another, ethical egoism unacceptably draws a morally significant line between the individual and everything else, such that only the individual's good is morally significant. See William Frankena, Ethics, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973), Chapter 2, and James Rachels and Stuart Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5th edition (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2007), Chapter 5.

[25] While our good will be an objectively good thing, there are many other things—the good of others, justice, honesty, promise-keeping, and so on—that will also be objectively good; and our reasons will be based on all of these things, not just on our own good.

[26] Attributing anyone's failure to follow moral obligations requiring them to do what results in a loss of good for them to irrationality is compatible with attributing such failure in those who have not sufficiently internalized moral values to a defective moral character. Though it is possible that having a defective moral character does not mean that one is irrational, on the current picture it does: because of their character defects, those with defective moral characters are not sensitive to, or do not sufficiently respect, the reasons backing moral obligations, and thus cannot be properly moved by these reasons (i.e., they are irrational). But since their irrationality is attributable to their defective moral characters, attributing moral failure to the former is compatible with attributing it to the latter.

[27] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 225.

[28] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 220. I want to point out two things here. First, note that the views discussed above that rule out unreasonable moral obligations can satisfy the "deep commitment of reality to morality" without the need to have virtue correspond to our own good. For on either view, what is morally required is always backed by a set of reasons that is stronger than all of the other sets of reasons prescribing alternative courses of action. So if either view—or any view that delivers the same results—is true, then reality will be "deeply committed to morality" by ensuring that the actions morally required of us are sufficiently backed by reasons. Second, by arguing that we need God to make happiness correspond to virtue, Kant assumes that virtue is not already an essential component of human happiness. But this is only true on certain conceptions of what human happiness consists in, which makes the assumption a questionable one. What is important about this for our purposes is that Mavrodes basically does the same thing that Kant does. Mavrodes wants to show that we need some sort of religion to ensure that being virtuous corresponds to our own good, which implicitly assumes that virtue is not already a component of the human good. But again, this is a questionable assumption because it is only true on certain conceptions of the human good—conceptions that could be inadequate ones.

[29] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 224.

[30] Unfortunately, Mavrodes is not careful to distinguish these two different meanings of superficiality. Right after claiming that values and obligations cannot be deep in a nonreligious world, he says: "They have a grip only upon surface phenomena, probably only upon man." So right after suggesting a different meaning of the superficiality of morality in a nonreligious world, he switches back to the original kind of superficiality that pertains to a relation with human beings. By doing this, he gives the false impression that he is talking about one kind of superficiality when he is really talking about two kinds. This is a significant oversight, for the metaphysical deepness of values themselves does not guarantee the "deep commitment of reality to morality" that refers to the guaranteed correspondence of virtuous behavior and our good.

[31] Roughly speaking, properties supervene upon other properties just in case (a) a change in the former entails a change in the latter and (b) sameness in the latter entails sameness in the former.

[32] Even if such superficiality were odd or absurd, this would not be grounds for supposing that any religious worldview was superior to a nonreligious one; for such superficiality would be true of at least some religious worldviews. Take a theistic worldview, for instance. God is a being that possesses the property of goodness, and he does so in virtue of his nonmoral features. Moreover, since God is a moral agent, he will face situations that impose moral obligations on him in the same way that situations impose them on us, and he will do so in virtue of the nonmoral features of these states of affairs. So the "superficiality" charge would hold for both a theistic worldview and a nonreligious one, and thus it could not be claimed that the former is superior to the latter in virtue of avoiding this charge.

[33] Even if the principles of logic and mathematics are analytic necessary truths, as they are often thought to be, while the moral facts or principles that I am talking about are synthetic necessary truths (such as "Water is H2O"), the latter still have the same status as the former in that they all are metaphysically necessary truths.

[34] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 215.

[35] That this is so can be seen by looking at people who could "recognize" the truth of P3 for nonreligious reasons. Some people, for instance, may "recognize" that morality is not odd or absurd in the actual world because they are moral antirealists. Others might "recognize" this because they ascribe to a secular view of objective morality which ensures that moral obligation is always sufficiently backed by reasons. In the first case P1 would not be taken as true, and in the second P2 would not be taken as true. So if we take P1 and P2 to be true, then we cannot "recognize" P3 as true in either of these ways. Instead, the only way to "recognize" P3 as true given P1 and P2 is if one already ascribes to a religious worldview that ensures that morality is not odd or absurd.

[36] On p. 225 Mavrodes says: "If you also share the conviction that it (morality) cannot in the end be absurd in that way, then perhaps you will also be attracted to some religious view of the world." While this suggests that attraction to some religious worldview is a result of the conviction that morality is not absurd, the relation between the two (I have argued) in fact goes in the opposite direction: the conviction that morality is not absurd results from the attraction to a religious worldview. So of course people who think that objective morality is not absurd will also be attracted to some religious worldview.

[37] Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," p. 218.

[38] Oddly enough, Mavrodes recognizes that there are a lot of puzzling and surprising facts about the world, yet does not seem to be worried about them at all. He even acknowledges that such facts pose the strongest challenge against him, but he does not bother to address this challenge.

[39] I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


Copyright ©2013 Ryan Stringer. The electronic version is copyright ©2013 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Ryan Stringer. All rights reserved.

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