Notes From Babel

Morality without God?

with 5 comments

Kyle Cupp rejects the idea that God is a necessary precondition for morality, offering three arguments:

[W]hile people disagree about moral norms and principles, most people have some moral presuppositions in which their deliberations are grounded. These presuppositions may be religious, but they don’t have to be. A belief in Jesus may motivate one volunteer at a soup kitchen, while the very presence of someone who is hungry may motivate another. A theist may avoid murder because it violates God’s commandment, while an atheist may avoid murder because of the loss and misery it delivers. The consequences of human action alone provide reason for not permitting everything.

Cupp’s second argument is related to the first:

[E]ven if God exists and has written the moral law, the believer still acts based on the presupposition that the consequences of obeying the moral law are better than and preferable to the consequences of violating it. In doing so, the believer and the unbeliever share basically the same presupposition.

These arguments are really just different ways of suggesting that bad acts lead to bad consequences, and thus we don’t need a separate concept of “morality” to tell us not to do bad things (or, conversely to tell us to do good things).  Whatever the merits of Cupp’s argument, it is not an argument about whether we can have an objective, universal morality without God.  Focusing on consequences only helps us avoid things we happen to find personally unpleasant.  It does not tell us anything about the relationship between unpleasantness and badness as a moral concept.

However, Cupp presents a third argument that is a bit more complicated to explain and thus to refute:

Third, while the absence of a divine lawmaker would leave humanity without a divine moral law, humanity would still have ground on which to build an objective morality. Unless it is held that God composed the moral law arbitrarily, then the moral law is something that makes sense given the way of the world. There’s a difference between killing a flea and killing a person not merely because God says so, but because there are significant differences, physical and metaphysical, between an insect and a person. Therefore, even if it were left to men and women to write moral laws, they are not thereby doomed to write arbitrarily, without rhyme or reason. Moral reflection can look to insights about the physical and metaphysical as a sailor would look to a guiding star.

In other words, the argument suggests that because God, even if he does exist, is not arbitrary, then his handing down a moral code is not the same thing as saying we depend on God for the existence of morality in the first place.  While God did us a favor distilling the moral law in the Ten Commandments, the moral law exists whether or not God does.  Thus, the trick in a godless universe is not deciding whether there is a moral law at all, but discerning what it is.

This is a sophisticated argument, but I think it ultimately unravels into arbitrariness.  If we assume, as Cupp does, that there is a transcendental reality, man’s inquisitive nature demands there be some account of its nature other than arbitrarily picking out certain of its characteristics.  Beyond the empirically observable world, what truths can we purport to know?  Certainly, we depend on such truths to make sense of our observable reality.  For example, to make any predictions about the world, we have to assume, as a transcendental fact about the world, that the future will resemble the past. Without this profoundly non-empirical claim, science cannot do any work.  Similarly, causation, induction, grammar, numbers, categories, political obligations, and so on, are all non-empirical claims that are nonetheless necessary for a meaningful understanding about the world.

But it is dismally unsatisfying to simply posit them without explanation.  Thus, while I applaud Cupp for acknowledging the existence of an objective morality, I reject his invitation to proceed with intellectual inquiry without demanding any rigor in accounting for these important transcendental truths. To suggest, for example, that we do not need any explanation for why there is a morality in the first place, or why we are the sort of creatures that recognize it and are impelled to follow it, is no answer to the argument that we do.  The existence of God, and more specifically the Christian account of God, man, morality, sin, and salvation, begin to provide such a construct for these transcendental realities.  Regardless of whether that construct is persuasive, it cannot be seriously doubted that it is a more rigorous account than the shopping cart account, which is all atheism can offer.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I’m sorry, but I don’t trust any system of morality that includes “don’t work on Sunday” on its list of most important rules but neglects to include rape and molestation.


    March 13, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    • I think that gets afield of the questions of whether there is an objective morality to begin with and, if so, how we are to give an account of it. If we are going to debate the details of the Christian account that I subscribe to, it is only fair you first present your account.

      At any rate, I reject the suggestion that “don’t work on Sunday” is one of Christianity’s “most important rules,” and that Christianity does not regard “rape and molestation” as important moral prohibitions.

      Tim Kowal

      March 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm

      • “At any rate, I reject the suggestion that “don’t work on Sunday” is one of Christianity’s “most important rules,””

        Tell that to those who wrote the Decalogue.


        March 13, 2011 at 12:51 pm

        • You’re talking about Judaism. And you mean the sabbath, which is Saturday.

          Tim Kowal

          March 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

  2. Good stuff, Tim. You have a great writing style and you make strong arguments. You and I have fundamental differences in the way we think, but at least you explore the real world. Not sure if you’d be interested, but we started a site called Wondering if you’d be interested in contributing an opposite viewpoint. Email me:


    March 13, 2011 at 6:21 pm

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