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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Can God Serve a Foundation for Morality? Another Response.




Cory Markum published an article last year in Atheist Republic responding to William Lane Craig and his moral argument for the existence of God called “God & Morality: Why God Cannot Serve as a Foundation for Morality.” This ambitiously titled article attempts to show that Craig’s argument does not accomplish the goal that he intends it to have. I will argue that not only does Markum’s argument against Craig fail, not also he does nothing even remotely close to showing that God cannot serve as a foundation for morality. In fact, it seems to me that not only can God serve as a possible foundation for morality, but is the only logically possible entity to do so, thus arguing for the impossibility of the contrary – that God not only is the foundation of morality but that it cannot logically be otherwise.[1]

I will in large part skip the first ¼ of the article as it addresses a version of Divine Command Theory ethics (DCT) that I do not personally ascribe to, nor feel any need to defend. In that section he attempts to undermine Craig’s argument by appeal to the long debunked Euthyphro Dilemma (ED). The ED seems to have become a staple among the New Atheist and internet infidel communities, but it has largely fallen on deaf ears and fallen out of favor even among atheistic philosophers.[2]

However at this point in the article, Markum moves into a version of DCT that I call Divine Attribute Theory (DAT)[3] in which moral values are rooted in the nature or the essence of God rather than in God’s commands. There may be further discussion about whether or not our moral duties/obligations may, at least in part, derive from God’s commands (surely some do). Nonetheless, it seems that to even discuss moral obligations we must first be able to ground moral values to which one is obliged to keep. There is no need to discuss my civic duties to the state if there is major doubt that there is anything like a state laws or state authority to which I am beholden.

Markum writes of the DAS, “This is believed by some to effectively render the first part or horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, what is known as the arbitrariness objection, a moot point, as morality is not arbitrarily set by a God but necessarily so, by a being who is perfectly and completely good.” Markum concedes at this point that it at some level this does avoid the 1st horn of arbitraries and that it may even escape the second horn, but only by pushing the goal posts of independence back a row. Thus he thinks that it still ultimately gets hung up on the second horn of independence via a Modified ED (MED) that will deliver the same results to DAT as ED did to DCT.[4]

He states, “To illustrate this, consider how theists tend to describe God’s perfectly moral nature: he is impartial, just, honest, compassionate, loving, etc. The fact that theists use such language to describe their god betrays them as we can now ask whether God’s nature is good because it is just, impartial, honest, loving, and so on, or are these qualities good solely because they happen to be among the attributes of the creator of the universe?”

The problems for Markum’s argument begin at this early stage for he has made a severe conceptual error in confusing the causal arrow. When a Christian says that God is good and then describes him as “just, impartial, honest, loving, and so on” they are describing the outworking actions of God’s goodness. That is, God is goodness and so therefore God acts in ways that are what we come to know as “good.” God is not goodness because he acts lovingly toward us for example. In fact, God was goodness before the creation of the world and so had not yet expressed love toward us. Those character traits are expressions of goodness and not the reasons for why God is good. So the problem is largely resolved in the same way that the first horn was avoided.

Markum continues, “If the former is true, then again, god would more or less seem superfluous in regards to morality, as it is not God per se, that makes something good, but ultimately the properties of honesty, impartiality, compassion, et cetera.” Here the conceptual error that Markum made initially is going to start costing him negative dividends at this point. Because he  thinks that the Christian is grounding the goodness of God in their descriptions of God’s goodness, he appears to think that this means those descriptions are then placed as standards above God to which God must then align in order to be good. So again, these are descriptions of what is entailed by the goodness of God, that is, how it is expressed or displayed. This does not create the independence problem that Markum hopes that it would.

He digs his hole deeper by trying to compare the problem by analogy to himself, “As long as I myself am compassionate, impartial, loving, and so on, I am good much the way this god would be if it in fact existed.” Not only does this make the conceptual error just mentioned but it also makes a massive category error of thinking that morality relates to all beings omnibus idem ­­– that we are moral in the same way that God is moral, and vice versa. Here a sneak peak must be given to what is to come, but it is hugely doubtful that Markum is the foundation for all objective moral values and so when he acts in an ethical manner, he is reflecting the moral goodness of God, much like how the moon may shine at night but only as it reflects the light of the sun. So Markum may act in good ways but he is not goodness. That distinction does indeed make all the difference. So with that first horn of MED answered what about the second?

Markum writes, “But if the latter is true, then there is nothing moral or good about things like compassion, love, and fairness, aside from the fact they happen to be some of God’s personality traits. It’s not, after all, as though God chose his nature. Conversely, there is nothing truly wrong with being dishonest, cruel, or unfair, other than the fact that God doesn’t act in this manner. Under this paradigm, morality amounts to little more than a sort of copy­cat­like game of mimicry and imitation.”

This again is highly problematic. Not only does he still confuse the difference between God’s nature and the expressions of that nature, but here Markum seems to wildly conflate moral values with moral duties. That compassion is a moral good does not automatically entail that beings in God’s creation would have some moral duty to uphold them. That is, something can conceivably be good without it being right and something could possibly be bad without being wrong. Good and bad are words to describe the moral worth of some action. Right and wrong are words use to describe whether or not we ought to engage in or abstain from those actions. Duties are an issue of authority – why am I obligated to do some action P? Well if I am under no authority, no command, no decree, then I cannot possibly be obligated. So there may be a world in which God is the foundation of all virtue and yet did not bind by either environment or by edict any creature therein to those virtues. However that does not appear to be the world that we are in. Not only is raping a small child for fun and profit evil, we have real obligations to not only abstain from it ourselves but to actively seek out those who would choose to engage in such actions. The fact that these are derived from the nature of God and could not be different, is hardly a substantive claim. It is like saying that the solidity of a bar of lead is arbitrary because it did not choose to remain solid at room temperature. Well in cases were we are talking about objectivity of a concept, the fact that choice is not involved is kind of the point. In fact, this position seems to be a blatant example of heads I win, tails you lose. Markum is here arguing that it is a problem that God did not choose his nature and yet one wonders what he would argue if the tables were turned and God could choose his nature. Well in that case he would likely appeal to ED and argue that morality would then be arbitrary.

He then continues on to argue that by trying to avoid the ED horn of arbitrariness, the DAT creates several new problems for itself. He writes, “First, if God is perfectly moral, by which we mean he is incapable of doing wrong, then he is consequently cut off from half of the possible actions/choices that he would otherwise be capable of doing. He is therefore most assuredly not omnipotent.” This is a massive blunder on Markum’s part and reveals that his understanding of classic Christian theology is not that robust. While this argument is popular on online blogs, no theologian (atheist or otherwise) would take this problem very seriously. Omnipotence does not mean God can do any action but rather means that God could do any logically possible action or that no outside force could prevent God from doing what he wills. In either case, God being unable/unwilling to do an evil action is not problematic. For is God is goodness, then for absolute goodness to be absolute goodness it cannot logically do anything evil. Therefore because God cannot do anything logically impossible, then as a the foundation of absolute goodness God would not possibly be able to do any evil action and yet still remain omnipotent. The other conception of omnipotence would also be unaffected since as the foundation of absolute goodness, God would not desire to do anything evil and no exterior force could cause him to do so. Thus no power could be exerted against him and thus he would remain omnipotent.[5]

Markum then argues, “Second, this sort of god is certainly not a free creature either, by any reasonable definition of the word. When this being approaches an ethical fork in the road, it inevitably finds one path blocked off. God doesn’t choose to do, and therefore be, good—he just is. This seems to me to make God a sort of wind up doll, or moral machine, with his every action being not only mediated but wholly determined by his divine nature.”

This again reveals considerable misunderstandings for Markum. Here I will not be diverted down the massive rabbit trail of discussing or defending any particular view of freedom of the will, but surely any view of the will (libertarian, compatiblistic, deterministic, or otherwise) places boundaries due to the nature to which the will is bound. Even if I have perfect libertarian freedom, I am not free, for example to fly like a bird or to be a dolphin. If God is goodness, then just because God will always by nature choose the good path, it does not mean that he is not free. It does not make God a “robot” any more than you or I are robots because we are not birds or dolphins.

Another major problem here is that it attempts to place God in time or at least in relational to causal decisions in the same way that we face them. We are asked to imagine that God is like an explorer, walking down the path of life and comes to a fork in the road and must weigh the cost and blindly pick which path to take. This may be one kind of deity I suppose, but it surely is not the one of monotheism in which God knows the beginning from the end and does not process thoughts and decisions in the same way that we do. God does not need to choose A or B like we do. This kind of confusion and failure to work within the Creator/creature distinction reveals a lack of clear and cogent understanding of theism within Markum’s arguments.


In his section entitled “Rape is bad; therefore, God exists” Markum then moves on to attempt to engage with Craig’s moral argument which is as follows:

1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exist.

This simple modus tollens argument is a valid syllogism and so the real question is whether or not the premises themselves are true. Markum begins his assault on the argument with revealing a major flaw in his own argument. He states, “Now leaving aside the fact that many of us think values are necessarily subjective...” Remember the subtitle of the article is, “Why God Cannot Serve as a Foundation for Morality.” The irony of Markum’s statement should be pointed out. He is attempting to show that God cannot be the foundation for morality but in order to do so, he must reject that there is such a thing as objective morality. I have argued extensively elsewhere that subjective morality just is nihilism and thus no morality at all, but observe how Markum needs to deny morality in order to defend his case that God cannot be the foundation for morality. This is a very costly error for him to make.

He then continues, “to what exactly does Dr. Craig point in support of this? Amazingly, the only thing Craig gives in order to substantiate this—the existence of objective moral values in the world—is the fact that we perceive moral values in the world. That is, because things like rape seem quite obviously wrong to (some) of us, we can simply conclude from this that therefore these things are objectively wrong.”

The first major problem here is that Markum can only say this if he is unfamiliar with the corpus of Craig’s work in which he has done quite a bit of work defending P2. However, even if that were not the case I would still be inclined to agree with Craig on this issue. We can think of a simple analogy: How am I to convince you that a realm of material objects exist? Well I point to the desk and say, “Here is a material object!” What do you say then to the person who rejects perception and says, “Well you cannot appeal to thing that is meant to be proven”? It seems to me that if someone wants to deny that raping a small child for fun and profit is actually and objectively evil and immoral, then I’m simply not sure that they have the moral or rational capacities to discuss these issues cogently. In fact, the only I see this ever coming up is in a defense of atheism or a denial of theism such that it seems that nihilist is willing to accept absurdities in order to escape conceding that God exists.[6]

Markum then goes on to make several quite common, but elementary, mistakes. He says, “The first and most obvious problem with this is that clearly not everyone agrees about what is right or wrong in the first place. Hence, our current culture wars over homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, etc.” He may think that this is a valid argument but what he has actually done is confuse ontology with epistemology. The existence of disagreements about certain facts does not mean that those facts do not exist or are not objective. If that were the case then whether or not evolution were true, if God exists, if the earth rotates around the sun or vice versa, and so one would all just be subjective believe evolved from our cultural developments. The simple fact that people disagree about something is not a salient point to an argument. This is not a problem for objective morality and in fact is perfectly in line with it. Some people (maybe all people) can be wrong. I’m certain that I have incorrect moral beliefs. Yet I’m also certain that those who believe that trafficking humans for profit is morally acceptable are just as wrong as the flat earthers living in the Appalachian backwoods.[7]

He continues, “Secondly, it appears that some people (psychopaths) are lacking a moral compass all together; are we to believe that God dropped the ball here and failed to give them functional moral equipment?” This again is not a problem for the existence of objective moral values than is the existence of conspiracy theorists who doubt the moon landing are for the objective historical reality of the moon landing. Just because people who are cognitively deficient do not have the ability to formulate correct beliefs does not entail that the rest of us cannot. We do not say that color is subjective because some people are colorblind.[8] Markum reiterates this same fallacy by stating, “The next problem is that we cannot simply use the fact that some of us perceive moral values to establish the objective reality of those moral values... this is just lazy reasoning.” Well hardly. Again, as we have seen, the disagreement over a fact has little to no bearing on whether or not the fact is true or false. Just because nihilists would disagree doesn’t mean that Craig or his argument is unsound anymore than Markum would think that we should doubt evolution because Ken Ham and millions of Young Earth Creationists disagree.

Markum then calls an audible and attempts to punt to a concept of beauty and wonders if just because some people observe beauty that therefore there is some kind of objective beauty. He wonders then who would argue such a position and seems to be wholly unaware of the entire field of philosophy which deals with aesthetics, many of whom do hold to objective beauty. In fact many theists would say, along with their ethicists, that creaturely beauty is only beautiful in so far as it displays the beauty of God and that God intended to display with it. While it is beyond the scope of this response to make such a case, I do think that something can be said for such positions. In short, I think it is actually Markum and not Craig who is employing “lazy reasoning” by throwing up beauty as if it is some prima facie a priori defeater to the objectivist case.

Markum then takes a tact that I find quite puzzling. He moves to the structure of the Moral Argument and attempts to argue not only that the premises are false (which we have seen above he has failed at demonstrating) but also that the argument is a non sequitur, that is, that the structure of the argument is invalid. This is quite bizarre in that the argument is actually quite a standard modus ponens structured argument. It is of the form:

P1) ~P → ~Q
P2) Q
P3) P

This is a standard syllogistic form and within the moral argument the propositions and their negations are properly carried through the premises. However Markum starts this new assault by saying, “If this argument were formulated correctly, premise two would read more like, ‘Objective values seem to exist in the world,’ or ‘Objective values are perceived by most (I’m being generous here) of the world’s inhabitants.’” What he has done is taken a logically valid argument and in order to show why he thinks it is not valid, he offers what he thinks are improvements that would actually make it invalid. So not only is he incorrect that it is a non sequitur but his attempt to change it would turn it into a non sequitur. For if we altered P2 to be “Objective moral values seem to exist in the world” then we would also need to alter P1 and the P3 to be completely different. In fact not only would we have to change P3 to “Therefore, it would seem that God exists” but P1 would have to be radically altered because it is not clear on how many possible positions it would be that moral values only apparently or seem to exist. What Markum is doing is actually trying to change altogether what the argument is arguing for in order to escape from its conclusion. Yet nowhere does he in fact demonstrate that the argument, as formulated by Craig and others is in fact invalid.

He then rapidly shifts gears and goes back to his previous complaint that Craig does not defend P2 that objective moral values and duties do exist – again ignoring the entire corpus of Craig’s work doing just that. Markum states, “Again, the only support for the assertion of objective moral values is the subjective perception of them by some people. We’re not talking about the existence of moral values, but the perception of moral values. Clearly, this is just not enough to say that they do in fact exist in some objective sense.” Here he is not actually making any new arguments but merely recycling a previously failed one.

And thus ends the criticism of Craig’s argument. That really is it. While Markum is a clear and considerate thinker, it can hardly be said that his article has moved the needle for the cause of atheism against the Moral Argument. And yet he is not done. Remember the article is meant to show that God cannot be the foundation of morality. So Markum asks, “can we think of any other possible explanations for the fact that many of us do admittedly perceive moral values in the world?” This is where the real one-two punch should come in to knock God out of the explanatory ring. But what comes is not really what the title of the article offers.

“And the answer is of course an enthusiastic, yes. We are social animals. Evolution, whether or not its existence is even acknowledged, is a perfectly tenable explanation for why we happen to have these ethical inhibitions seemingly woven into our very being. We, as social beings, are preoccupied with the good and the bad quite simply because nature has gracefully conditioned us to be this way.”

That’s all that he has to offer. Social animals and evolution. Namely, nihilism. So we see again that in order for him to justify that God is not the foundation of morality, he must deny morality itself. There are no such things as objective moral values and duties. There is legal fictions and wish fulfillment – Markum has painted himself into the corner where he knows that rape is not actually evil and wrong but we have just evolved to have a strong distaste for it... and yet we live like it is wrong. We punish people for different tastes with imperialistic zeal. We hold special disdain for those who rape small children and we justify it by calling it evil. But for Markum’s worldview it is not and indeed it cannot be evil or wrong. Just an evolved distaste. We really wish it was wrong and so we pretend that it is in order to make society work. Wish fulfillment turtles all the way down.

The final problem for Markum comes in his closing paragraph, where he writes, “It may be that some god did in fact endow us with moral sentiments, sure, but nevertheless it may also be that natural selection has done so.” The thesis then that God cannot be the foundation for morality is then shown to be a brutum fulmen that not even Markum himself thinks he accomplished.




[1] For a far more thorough treatment of this issue, I recommend the section of my book of review of Disproving Christianity by David McAfee, pp. 16-23.
[2] There are some notable exceptions such as famed atheistic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.
[3] Markum calls this  the “Modified Divine Command Theory” or MDCT but I find my term far more illustrative of the actual concept and so will proceed with mine throughout this article.
[4] Though here I should also add that I largely do not see the problem with getting caught on one of the horns of the dilemma. Let us imagine that God could have commanded us otherwise. That simple fact does not mean that what he did command was arbitrary. I could have told my employee to do any number of things but the fact that I told them to work on variance reports does not mean that command was arbitrary. I have many good and substantive reasons for commanding such an action. I do not even think that ED is really all the problematic to begin with.
[5] At this point, many atheists often protest that the theist is alter the concept of omnipotence and that omnipotence means  that God can do anything without any logical constraints. The lady doth protest too much. If that were the case then God could literally have the power to make any contradiction true and so if we grant that conception of omnipotence then there is no problem. God could be all good and unable to act in any other way as a violation of his omnipotence and yet make it such that it is not a violation of his omnipotence. What basis for appeal would the atheist have at that point? They cannot appeal to logic because by their own standard logic does not apply in these cases because God could do any logically impossible action as well. It is therefore in the atheists’ own interest to allow the traditional view of omnipotence to have logical boundaries by which we can at least reasonably discuss these issues.
[6] This was the main argument that moved me out of my atheism and naturalism into broad theism in college. I realized that my knowledge that raping a little girl was wrong was supremely more justified than my belief that God did not exist. And yet in order to hold the former, I had to abandon the latter. I see atheists like Markum and others who seem to think that accepting the existence of God is a higher cognitive price tag than denying the objective evil of gang raping a small child and so are more comfortable denying the latter than accepting the former.
[7] In fact, they may be more wrong to a degree since we do not expect that everybody necessarily be scientifically informed but we do expect all people to have basic moral understanding.
[8] J. Budziszewski, in his lecture “The Revenge of Conscience” also argues that sociopaths do not actually have no moral sense but rather have quite the acute moral sense but simply use it differently to justify their own actions.

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