Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

The Moral Argument - part 1

This is the manuscript from a talk that I gave to Ratio Christi at NCState. The slides and audio from the talk can be found on YouTube here.

Hi, my name is Neil Shenvi and I'm a theoretical chemist at Duke University. This is a five-part talk on the moral argument for God's existence that I first gave to Ratio Christi at NCState. The moral argument claims that God's existence can be deduced by reflecting on the existence and nature of morality. I think the moral argument makes a compelling case for God's existence and is an argument that all Christians should be familiar with. I also think that the moral argument plays an especially important role in Christianity because moral issues about God, human beings, and our need for rescue are at the very heart of the gospel. I'll say more about that in the last section of the talk. But let's begin with the talk outline.

In the first part of the talk, I'll introduce the moral argument, provide some key definitions and address some common misconceptions. In the second part, I'll defend premise 1 of the moral argument: why do we think God is necessary to ground the existence of objective moral values and duties? In the third section, I'll defend premise 2 of the moral argument: why do we think that objective moral values and duties exist? In the fourth section, I'll introduce a version of the moral argument which I call the transcendental-moral argument that I think is even more powerful than the standard version. And finally, I'll ask 'if the moral argument is true, why do we reject it?'

So let's begin with Part 1: what is the moral argument? The moral argument is a syllogism consisting of two premises and a conclusion. The argument is logically valid, meaning that if the two premises are true, then the truth of the conclusion follows logically from the premises. The first premise is that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. The second premise is that objective moral values and duties do in fact exist. But if both premises are true, then it follows that God must exist. So if we want to deny the conclusion of the moral argument, we'll have to deny one or both of the premises.

But before we examine the premises, let's first provide some definitions. Objective moral values are values like compassion, love and justice which are good or bad independent of human belief. For instance, a value like love is objectively good even if I claim that it is evil or even if everyone in my community or everyone in the world claims that love is evil. Objective moral duties are obligations that are true and binding independent of whether we acknowledge them. For example, I have an objective duty to love my children even if I reject that obligation. This is why philosophers sometimes refer to objective moral facts, facts about morality that are true independent of my belief.

A helpful comparison can be made to objective physical facts. Gravity is an objective physical fact. I might deny that gravity exists. I might convince everyone in the world that gravity doesn't exist. But if I jump off a building, i will fall to my death because the objective truth of gravity does not depend on my recognition of that truth. Likewise, if objective moral values and duties exist, then they are true independent of my belief in them.

Next, let me clear up some common misconceptions about the moral argument. First, I want to make it absolutely clear that the moral argument deals with moral ontology, not moral epistemology or ethics. Moral ontology asks the question: "What is morality? What is the element of reality to which morality corresponds?" Moral epistemology instead asks a different question: "How do we know what is moral?" One person might say "We know what is moral from our conscience," another person might say "we know what is moral from the Bible or the Book of Mormon or the Qur'an." Another person might say "we know what is moral by asking philosophers and ethicists." But all of those answers pertain to moral epistemology rather than moral ontology. In this entire discussion, we're not asking "How do we come to know what is good?" but "What is goodness itself?" Finally, ethics asks the question: "Which moral facts are true? Is the proposition 'stealing is bad' true or false? Is the proposition 'murder is bad' true or false?" These are questions of ethics, nor moral ontology or epistemology. So when we make the moral argument, we are not claiming that atheists cannot recognize what is good or that they cannot engage in moral behavior. We're asking whether the very concept of goodness must be grounded in God.

So I hope I've provided clear definitions for the relevant terms and have cleared up some common misunderstandings. In the next part of the talk, I'll defend premise 1 of the moral argument by asking 'Do we need God to ground the existence of objective moral values and duties?'


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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

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