Theism Cannot Account for Objective Morality

I have addressed before why the notion of god is a contradiction and how objective morality can be discovered through empirical evidence. A point I have not mentioned is that many theists, despite their claims otherwise, hold that objective morality is impossible. Christians, for example, will claim that their god’s nature is all-good, establishing the validity of morality. But this is not a statement about an objective standard of morality. Objective means based on an evaluation of the nature of reality. Religions like Christianity are not proposing to support an objective standard of morality, just the inverse. They are supporting an intrinsic standard of morality, which I will demonstrate is actually just a subtler form of subjectivism, the idea that the ultimate standard of value or values to evaluate actions is determined by each person (or subject).

I claim that values are particular kinds of facts, that values relate to a specific person and for a particular reason. That is not to say that the process of evaluating which actions an individual ought to pursue is left to personal discretion, only that there are circumstances (or context) by which objective evaluations are made. For example, eating an apple provides a value (the satisfaction of my hunger) under certain circumstances. (Those certain circumstances, just to name a few, are whether I own or have permission to eat the apple, if the apple is sanitary and if the apple is ripe or not.) Since the decision to remain alive or to die is the only fundamental alternative I face, choosing to live establishes that my life is an ultimate value, an end in itself. My very own life, should I choose to remain living, is the only logically consistent standard of value I can have. I can discover these certain circumstances because they have empirically observable consequences on the standard by which I evaluate values. And it is that ultimate standard of value that can be used as a yardstick to evaluate the choice of alternatives within a given context, like eating the apple. That which promotes my life is a value, and that which hinders my life is a disvalue. Since this is true of all individuals, each individual’s life is an end in itself. For intrinsicists, values are not related to any particular purpose or any purpose at all since values just exist on their own. If someone were to ask an intrinsicist why eating an apple is a value, assuming the intrinsicist did believe eating an apple were a value in and of itself, the intrinsicist would say that eating an apple is the right thing to do. And why is it the right thing to do? Because eating an apple is a value. That is circular logic.

According to intrinsicism, a value resides in an object, thus shaping what that object is. So instead of saying that the nature of reality (what is) determines what are values, religions like Christianity are claiming that values determine the nature of reality (what is). A value would reside in the aforementioned apple, and it would be the right thing to do to eat more apples than less, regardless of the circumstances. One might object that stealing apples might not be appropriate since stealing is prohibited in the Bible, which is true. However, intrinsicism does not provide a way to formulate a moral code (or hierarchy of values) to evaluate possibly conflicting actions in light of particular circumstances. Since intrinsicism contends that values exist independent of their relationship to a particular valuer for a particular reason, intrinsicism cannot account for why an apple would be a greater value when a person is hungry rather than not, for example. Without a cognitive standard to make comparisons, a person would be left to decide which value is greater based on his or her desires (because one’s desires (or lack of) would be all that values shared in common). In practice, intrinsicists have to guess or take other people’s word for it. That is one reason why intrinsicism is a more elaborate form of subjectivism.

My experience is that theists will appeal to so-called innate moral knowledge as proof of objective morality. Yet, this so-called innate moral knowledge is often mistaken, according to theists, when confronted with the problem of evil. Suffering brought about by natural disasters or genocide would all be preventable by a god, yet those tragedies are permitted and orchestrated to take place by god. Because there is no empirical verification of innate knowledge, the argument is that god must have some reason unbenounced to humans for this destruction of innocent life to take place, which tells us that any innate moral knowledge is untrustworthy. The three possible conclusions (all of which theists deny is true) are that objective morality exists independent of a god, objective morality does not exist, or god is not naturally good.

Moreover, Christians are mistaken when they claim they believe that god is an ultimate value and that therefore god is the ultimate standard of value. For Christians, the ultimate value and the standard of value is the grace (or approval) of god. A value is that which one acts to gain or keep. Christians are seeking to gain or keep the grace of god so that they are accepted into the kingdom of god. Logically speaking, through, the grace of god cannot be an ultimate value because the grace of god is contingent on god’s decision to grant grace in the first place. God’s decision to grant grace could only take place if granting grace or not granting grace would somehow affect god, a purportedly all-powerful, all-knowing eternal being. An individual’s decision to accept and pursue god’s grace has no bearing on god, who is incapable of destruction and who is not susceptible to time constraints. Nothing can affect god, who cannot be changed in any respect. God would have nothing to gain and nothing to lose, so nothing can be of value to god. If nothing can be of value, there is no reason for god to act, let alone grant grace.

For the intrinsicist, these values — since they serve no actual purpose — are actually just duties. Why is it that god’s grace is something worth pursuing, one might ask? Because it is the right thing to do. Why is that? Because god’s grace is a value one ought to pursue. That is question-begging, and the illogic of that should be apparent before I can say “infinite regress.”

Frustrated, reasonable people might ask why should they accept that god’s grace is the standard of value. The answer is pretty straightforward: because you can either live in bliss with god or be tortured for eternity. The next question then becomes why should I consider living in bliss with god a good thing and being tortured a bad thing. Christians have one of two choices, as far as I can see. They can either return to the infinite regress of intrinsicism, or the intrinsicist can say that living in bliss with god feels pleasurable and being tortured feels painful. That does not really answer any questions either. Why should pleasure be considered good and pain considered bad? After all, pleasures can sometimes be harmful. For kids, only eating sweets might be pleasurable, but always eating sweets is not a good thing. Exercise phrases like “No pain, no gain” are expressing that one’s own life is the standard of value. Exercising can help an athlete become stronger, faster or build endurance. That is important because the achievement of those values helps one become a better basketball player or win more games, which would further boost self-esteem, a component of happiness. Genuine happiness is a consequence of achieving life-promoting empirical (fact-based) values and is a rationally consistent purpose of living one’s life.

A final argument given by intrinsicists is that their god is the lawmaker and that fact establishes the authority of god’s law. In fact, intrinsicists argue, god is responsible for every fact in the universe. Not only would god be responsible for the creation of existence, god is responsible for the identity (or nature) of all that exists. So things, including values and consequently morality, are what god chooses them to be. This would be the most overt and grandiose appeal to subjectivism imaginable and really underscores the subjective nature of a belief in god. If the subject of consciousness (god) has primacy over the subjects of consciousness (entities in existence) then nothing can be objective. If even a single consciousness has primacy over existence, then the law of identity, the basis for metaphysical objectivity, is meaningless.

Religious values are not based on facts, but on feelings. All the way around it, people accept religious teachings on faith. They accept on faith that god’s grace is the ultimate value because they feel like it. If the subjectivist teachings of religion were isolated to just theists, that would still be tragic. Unfortunately, it is much worse, and it is rooted in the truly evil idea that someone or something else is the beneficiary of another’s life. If the beneficiary of my life is god or god’s grace, I have no sanction to live my life for my benefit. Obviously, that is going to create some conflict. With all the religions in the world, not everyone is going to agree — particularly since god’s grace is not observable — what honors god’s grace and what dishonors god’s grace.

Since most everyone (including most atheists) agrees that I have no right to live my life according to my own judgement, then it is perfectly acceptable to apply coercion so that I might live my life by someone else’s judgement. The only things subjectivists have ever had in their favor are guilt and the gun. That is moral cannibalism.

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