Moral Realism

November 25, 2009

Tom Gilson published a piece about the consequences of atheism for moral realism.  In the comments section I rambled on a bit about how it doesn’t seem possible for objective moral values to exist without God.  The full text, prompted by a question from someone who is an atheist but believes objective moral facts exist, is reproduced here:

Are you saying that, under atheism, moral realism can’t be true, since every moral proposition would have been false prior to the existence of moral agents? But what about propositions like, “When moral agents exist, it is wrong for one moral agent to kill another without justification”?

What I’m saying is that there are good reasons to think that if atheism were true, then these propositions would either not have any meaning, or would not exist (and maybe there’s no difference between those two). My previous comments to you were an attempt to understand what you take to be the true nature of these objective propositions. I think I’ve got it, but could be wrong.

Think about the concept of a moral fact. What are some essential properties of such a thing? The following come to mind:
1. It is about an agent that is both conscious, and free (these are two independent properties).
2. It is a command to such conscious and free agents about what they should and should not do.

The typical atheist I encounter believes in naturalism, which is something a bit stronger than atheism. For on naturalism there is no immaterial realm. Everything that exists can be reduced to a physical phenomenon. Now I think if naturalism is true, not only do objective moral facts not exist, but things like free agents don’t exist either.

But you seem not to be a naturalist, due to your belief in these objective moral facts that exist irrespective of whether moral agents exist, or could even possibly exist. For if these propositions exist, they must exist in some immaterial realm, because it is possible for moral agents not to exist in the physical realm. The propositions cannot be some kind of emergent property of complex physical systems. You yourself have said that their truth value, their meaning, does not depend on the existence of actual persons.

At this point we can see that if you are not a naturalist, and believe in an immaterial realm, then you are on the same metaphysical footing as the theist who postulates God (who is an immaterial being) as the source for moral values and duties. Any objection you may have to the existence of God cannot be rooted in the disbelief of immaterial entities.

Moving on, how is it that the moral facts, with the attendant properties described above, exist without God? What kind of conscious-less process can produce the “consciousness property” of a moral fact? What kind of purposeless process can produce the “command property” of the moral fact? It seems to me that a conscious-less, purposeless process is not the sort of thing that is even capable of producing a thing with the properties of a moral fact. Thus, if there is no God, objective moral facts do not exist.


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