The Moral Argument Revisited: A Second Reply to Richard Bushey

This is the latest entry in a series of posts on Libere and Therefore God Exists in which Richard Bushey and I debate whether the is-ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethics. Previous entries included:

Libere: Do atheists steal morality from the Christian worldview?

Bushey: Is the moral argument guilty of the is-ought fallacy? 

Libere: In Defense of the Incompatibility of Hume’s Is/Ought Dichotomy and Theistic Metaethical Realism: A Response to Richard Bushey 

Bushey: In Defense of the Moral Argument: A Response to Dan Linford

I’ve recently defended the view that the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism are incompatible. My argument was originally posed as a response to presuppositional apologists, like Greg Bahnsen, who argue that moral facts both exist and are so obviously grounded in God that anyone who claims not to believe in God must have deceived themselves. I call this the obviousness thesis. In response, I argued that the is/ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethical realism and that because it is less than clear whether the is/ought dichotomy is true, the obviousness thesis is false. Theists who maintain moral facts are grounded in God, but, contra Bahnsen, that this is not obviously so, are free to agree with me and to deny the is/ought dichotomy. Others may maintain that moral facts are not grounded in God; moral facts may be reducible to natural facts (as for moral naturalists who deny the is/ought dichotomy) or non-reducible (as for robust moral realists who maintain the is/ought dichotomy).

Richard Bushey charges that there is no incompatibility between the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism. I do not know where he stands on the obviousness thesis, because, as far as I know, he has not written on that topic. Nonetheless, if nothing else, the debate between the two of us indicates these issues are not trivial to settle; if so, the obviousness thesis is false. Richard raised three objections to my argument. In my first response, I answered, at length, to all three. In his new rebuttal, he responds that none of my responses were adequate. In what follows, I will demonstrate that none of Richard’s responses succeed; nonetheless, Richard’s responses raise important and substantive issues in metaethics that are worth discussing.

First, Richard argues that I have not challenged the premises in the moral argument for God’s existence. To review, the moral argument, as presented by William Lane Craig and others, proceeds as follows:

  1. If God does not exist then objective moral truths do not exist.

  2. Objective moral truths do exist.

  3. Therefore, God exists.

It is true that my original post does not challenge either premise 1 or 2 directly. Of course, this makes sense: I was attacking the obviousness thesis (and theistic metaethical realism), not the moral argument. My argument did not attack premise 2 indirectly either. Whether theism and the is/ought dichotomy are compatible has little to do with whether or not there are objective moral truths. For example, perhaps there are objective moral truths, the is/ought dichotomy is false, and moral truths are grounded (somehow) in God or in natural properties. Or perhaps there are objective moral truths, the is/ought dichotomy is true, and those objective moral truths constitute an autonomous domain of facts that requires no independent grounding. Thus, claims about the incompatibility of the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism do not challenge premise 2.

However, my argument does challenge premise 1, albeit indirectly. Despite Richard’s protestations, I spent some time arguing that the incompatibility between the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism implied that we should think 1 is false. However, my previous argument may have been overly technical and difficult for some readers to grasp. Here, I offer a simpler argument for the same conclusion.

Consider a statement of the form (1*): ‘if there had been no leprechauns, then my chair would not exist’. We can imagine a view according to which chairs are made by leprechauns so there cannot be any chairs without leprechauns; let’s call this view Leprechair Theory. Surely, someone who maintains Leprechair Theory would maintain that (1*) is true. But there is another view according to which facts about chairs cannot be grounded in, explained by, or reduced to facts about leprechauns; call this the Chair/Leprechaun Dichotomy. Surely, someone who maintains the Chair/Leprechaun Dichotomy would deny (1*). They would say that, insofar as there are chairs (perhaps they are chair agnostic), those chairs cannot be explained by leprechauns. In other words: insofar as the Chair/Leprechaun Dichotomy is true, there can be chairs with or without leprechauns.

The is/ought dichotomy states that no moral fact can be reduced to, grounded in, or explained by any non-moral fact. Thus, anyone who maintains the is/ought dichotomy has reason to think that, regardless of any other sort of fact, there may be moral facts. Note the is/ought dichotomy proponent need not claim there really are moral facts; perhaps they are agnostic as to the existence of moral facts. But the claim that moral facts are independent of any other sort of fact surely provides a reason to deny premise 1.

Bushey’s insistence that the moral argument and the is/ought dichotomy are compatible suggests an implausible possibility. Premise 1 of the moral argument may evaluate to true, on a number of semantic theories, if it could be shown that any possible world in which there are moral facts is also a possible world in which God exists, despite the irreducibibility (and ungroundability) of moral facts in God facts. However, it is difficult to imagine such a possibility. One way for x and y to always co-occur in the same possible world, but for neither to be grounded in, reduced to, or explained by the other, is if x and y are both explained by some third thing z. However, it could not be that both God and moral facts were explained by some third thing, for this would amount to denying both the is/ought dichotomy and God’s necessary existence. It could be that both moral facts and God’s existence are necessary truths; if so, moral facts and God would obtain at all possible worlds. If they both occur at all possible worlds, then, trivially, they would both occur at all of the same possible worlds. However, although this would render premise 1 true on some semantic theories, it runs into two problems. First, it would beg the question against the atheist by assuming God’s necessary existence. Second, I don’t think it would capture what the theist means when they assert premise 1.

When the theist asserts premise 1, I think what they mean is two-fold: first, moral facts can only be explained by facts about God; second, if moral facts exist, then they require an explanation. If I’m right about that, we can render a new (and equivalent) version of the moral argument:

      1. The only possible explanation for moral facts is in terms of facts about God.

      2. If moral facts exist then there is an explanation for those moral facts.

      3. There are moral facts.

      4. Therefore, there is an explanation for those moral facts that involves God.

      5. Therefore, God exists.

Provided that 4-8 is a correct rendering of the moral argument, we can see why it is incompatible with the is/ought dichotomy. The conjunct of the is/ought dichotomy with premises 4 and 6 allows us to derive a contradiction:

      1. No moral fact can be explained in terms of a non-moral fact (the is-ought dichotomy).

      2. Moral facts can be explained in terms of God facts (from 4 and 6).

      3. Therefore, moral facts both can and cannot be explained in terms of God facts (from 9 and 10).

Since we were led into a contradiction, we must deny one of the assumptions with which we began. I do not think Richard will deny that there are moral facts. This leaves us to deny 4. But 4 – that the only possible explanation of moral facts is in terms of God facts – is what I think the theist means when they say that moral facts can only exist if God exists. In other words, denying 4 is equivalent to denying 1. Thus, I conclude that premise 1 of the moral argument and the is/ought dichotomy are incompatible.

In the next objection, Richard charges that I have confused moral values with moral duties. Richard follows Craig, Adams, Alston, and others, in arguing that the Good is grounded in God’s nature while our moral obligations are grounded in God’s commands. To review, Craig, Adams, Alston, etc, ground moral value in God’s nature as a response to the Euthyphro Dilemma. God’s commands cannot be arbitrary, they claim, because God’s commands issue forth from God’s nature; in turn, God’s nature is the perfect standard of moral goodness. Notice how key the connection is between God’s commands and nature are on this view. If God’s nature and commands are explanatorily severed, the Euthyphro Dilemma returns: God’s commands could no longer issue forth from God’s nature and it would not matter whether God was the perfect standard of moral goodness. Yet this seems to be the view Richard endorses. He writes that “God’s nature establishes what is. His commands to us establish what we ought to do. They are utterly distinct categories.” If these two categories are actually distinct, so that God’s commands cannot be explained in terms of God’s nature, then God’s nature does not determine the commands. Therefore, the commands really would be arbitrary.

Nonetheless, in his latest post, Richard takes a different view. God’s commands are determined by God’s nature, but this does not require grounding moral facts in non-moral facts. Instead, God’s nature is ineliminably moral because God is identical to the Good. Because God is necessarily existent, so too is the Good. Just as God necessarily exists, so too the Good necessarily exists.

I had previously considered this possibility and had argued, parallel to Erik Wielenberg, that there is no reason why the bruteness of moral properties on theism would be more acceptable than the bruteness of moral properties on atheism. Richard describes and responds to my argument as follows:

At this, Linford asks how it is that goodness could exist with no further explanation on theism, but it could not exist likewise on atheism. […] I think he misrepresented the theistic position. The theistic position is not that goodness exists with no explanation. As identical to God, goodness exists necessarily, because God exists necessarily. If the atheist wants to posit that their theory of metaethics involves necessary existence, then there might be a parallel, but I have a suspicion that Linford will be hesitant to grant that.

Richard points out that the Good’s existence does not lack an explanation, as its necessity is explanation enough. I don’t think I misrepresented the theistic position here: to say that the Good exists necessarily is to say that the Good requires no explanation. But put this aside; it doesn’t really matter to me whether we say that necessary existence is an explanation of actual existence. I confess utter and complete confusion as to why Richard would “have a suspicion” that I would be “hesitant to grant that” moral properties necessarily exist. The secular metaethical view I put forward as an example in my previous response – robust metaethical realism – and the authors I cited – Erik Wielenberg and David Enoch – all posit that moral properties do necessarily exist.

The theist can posit that God, if God exists, is ineliminably moral, so that all facts about God are also moral facts. This may save theistic metaethics from the potential incompatibility with the is/ought dichotomy, but only through an ad hoc theological postulate. Worse, I am not sure how coherent it would be to ground moral properties in God’s nature because moral properties, as properties are usually understood as abstracta; God is concrete. Most philosophers agree that the distinction between abstract and concrete as utterly fundamental. For example, Hoffman and Rosenkrantz describe prototypical examples of concreta as “places, times, and individual substances” while prototypical examples of abstracta are “shareable properties and sets” [1]. God, as a particular Person and substance who enters causal relations, is concrete and not abstract [2]. They state (emphasis in the original):

The distinction between abstract and concrete entities is, we believe, a fundamental categorical distinction, in that every entity is either concrete or abstract, and no entity is both. We believe that the abstract-concrete distinction is, in fact, the most fundamental categorical distinction.[3]

Worse yet for the theist, I am skeptical that this move can do the work that the theist wants it to do. The theist wants to say that morality can only be explained in terms of God so that, if theism is false, moral realism would have to be false. Yet, when the theist posits that moral properties are (somehow) identical to God, they have postulated that moral facts do not require an explanation in terms of God. On a view in which moral properties are identical with God, to say that moral properties are explained by God is to say that moral properties are explained by moral properties, which is not to offer an explanation of moral properties at all (much less an explanation of moral properties in terms of God).

Richard’s next counterargument was formulated on the basis that moral obligation can only arise from the commands of a suitable authority. Only God could have the authority to issue the facts that ultimately ground moral obligation as such, so, insofar as such obligations exist, God must exist to provide them. I responded that this line of reasoning relies on an implicit moral principle, such as ‘one should obey the commands of worthy authorities’. Richard responds that we do not have a moral obligation to obey worthy authorities; instead, we have a rational obligation to do so.

Put aside the difficulty that, on a number of ethical theories (such as deontology), moral normativity is a species of rational normativity. This response fails for a few reasons. First, Richard’s examples seem to reveal that he does not buy his own response. Richard writes:

If I were to assess a government official’s capacity to issue a moral command, I would not be assessing his moral status. I would be assessing his authority in that situation. Since he is a representative of the federal government, I, as a citizen of the land, would be morally obligated to listen to him. But my decision to accept the official as a worthy authority is a non-moral decision.

Let’s put aside the fact that assessing the moral status of a purported authority is surely part of what is involved with judging an authority as legitimate. Let’s also put aside the issue that accepting any given official as an authority is an ethical issue, for there are trivial instances in which accepting an official as an authority would have been deeply immoral (we should not accept the authority of someone who tells us to commit genocide, for example). Both of these are irrelevant, for, contrary to Richard’s remarks, the question is not about how we assess God’s authority, but about why God’s authority creates obligation. Richard describes how “as a citizen of the land” we are “morally obligated to listen to” government officials. Perhaps this is so, but only because there is some further moral principle, such as ‘if one is a citizen of the land then one should listen to legitimate government officials’, that does not arise merely from the commands of government officials. This is a classic example of the is/ought dichotomy: what we ought to do cannot be reduced to facts about God’s commands, because, in addition to God’s commands, we have an obligation to obey God’s commands. It cannot be the case that our obligation to obey God’s commands arises from one of God’s commands, because then we would not have an explanation for why we are obligated to obey the command that we are obligated to obey God’s commands.

Second, suppose that Richard is right and our obligation to obey God’s commands arises merely from rationality and not as a moral duty. In that case, while it would be irrational to disobey God, it would not be immoral. I don’t think this is what Richard wants to say about God’s commands. I think Richard would say that we should follow God’s commands because it is morally right to do so. God rightfully expresses righteous indignation at our sinful rebellion; God does not express righteous indignation at our irrationality.

Richard summarizes my argument that our obligation to obey God’s commands requires an extra moral principle beyond God’s commands as follows: “I cannot assess the worth of an authority because then I would be granting that there is an authority beyond them to which I am appealing.” I find this to be a strange response. I do not think Richard needs to appeal to an extra authority. Instead, I think that moral obligation can arise without an authority to issue that obligation and that our obligation to obey worthy authorities is precisely the sort of obligation that arises independently of commands. Richard clarifies his position: “I am saying that by rationally contemplating an authority, we will know if they are competent to offer a moral command.” Perhaps this is so, but, again, we need an extra moral principle that states something like ‘we should obey the commands of competent authorities’. Richard charges that there is no way for the secular moral realist to ground obligation if their view does not involve an ultimate authority. I disagree; both views involve at least one obligation that arises independent of authority. Just as Richard requires some extra moral principle that obliges us to follow the commands of worthy or competent authorities, so too the secular moral realist requires a statement like ‘one should do that which is good’.

Richard finishes his article with a near (?) concession that the is/ought dichotomy and secular metaethical are incompatible. He writes:

[T]he reason that I pointed out the issue of worthy authorities is that I was almost conceding the is/ought dichotomy[…] We do draw an ought from an is. The teenager draws an ought from an is when he decides that on the basis of his parents’ commands, he will act in some way. We derive an ought from an is when we decide that because we see flashing lights behind us, that we will pull over. So an ought is certainly being derived from an is.

I don’t understand what Richard is arguing here. He states that we “do draw an ought from an is”, but his examples indicate the contrary. The teenager who listens to his parents’s commands has no reason she ought to obey those commands, unless there is some further principle not derivable from the parents (i.e. that one ought to heed the commands of one’s parents). Teenagers who merely understand their parents’s commands, but recognize nothing further, are not guaranteed to follow those commands. When a police officer pulls us over, we do not do so only because we see a police officer; instead, we do so because we recognize a further moral principle (i.e. that we ought to pull over for police officers). Those who see the flashing lights of a police car may recognize the police car, but they are not guaranteed to pull over for the police officer. In general, as Kant put it, doing the right thing requires we recognize and respect the moral law. This is equally true for God’s commands: our mere understanding of God’s commands does not compel us to obey God’s commands. Instead, we must recognize and respect an additional principle – that we ought to obey God’s commands – and this additional principle is not derivable from God’s commands or commanded by God (or any other authority).

But if Richard is stating that some facts about what we ought to do can be reduced to facts about what is the case, and this is the only way theistic metaethical realism could function, he has given up the entire game. As I said at the outset, perhaps the is/ought dichotomy is false, but incompatible with theistic metaethical realism. After all, the is/ought dichotomy is controversial; contrary to the titles of Richard’s posts, there is no is/ought fallacy, as if the dichotomy was purely the result of some infallible bit of logic. I finish with two suggestions.

First, if Richard wants to deny the is/ought dichotomy, he should construct a better argument for its falsehood. But this is not enough; Richard should demonstrate that, of the versions of moral realism incompatible with the is/ought dichotomy, only theistic versions plausibly succeed. I’m not entirely sure how Richard might attempt this. The only alternative to denying the is/ought dichotomy is to maintain the is/ought dichotomy, but this has the difficulties I have already explicated at length.

Second, Richard may be better served by giving up the moral argument and instead focusing on other arguments for God’s existence. I previously noted that the identification of God with the Good seems arbitrary. But if we knew, on independent grounds, that God exists, and we had to explain morality theologically, we may be forced to say that God is identical to the Good. I suspect that Richard will find this suggestion, although more promising, to be less appealing because he seems to want obedience to an authority to be an explicit feature of his moral theory and to be central to his theology, so that any person who disagrees with him can be held in contempt as someone who disagrees with that authority [4]. While the notion of God as ultimate authority can be rescued without the moral argument, the rearrangement of theistic argumentation I suggest shifts God’s moral authority out from its primary location in arguments for God’s existence and into a secondary theological location. Doing so undermines a Christian theological perspective that places the question of God’s existence as a moral question. Nonetheless, I suggest that removing morality from the question of God’s existence is the best way forward, not just because it would allow the theist a superior theology, but because it would invoke a kind of pluralism that is often missing from the atheist-theist dialogue.


[1] Hoffman, J. and Rosenkrantz, G. “Platonistic Theories of Universals”. In Michael Loux and Dean Zimmerman (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, p 47.

[2] As Hoffman and Rosenkrantz note, concreta need not be physical. Non-physical mental substances, if they exist, would also be prototypically concrete and not abstract, at least as those terms are used by philosophers.

[3] Ibid, p 46.

[4] Richard’s post is replete with mentions of authority, obedience, rebellion, warfare metaphors, and references to angry atheists. For example, he portrays me (comically) as a blonde-haired fellow whose eyebrows are furrowed in anger and whose teeth are visibly clenched (the angry atheist). His article ends by stating that he “held a shield firmly against Linford’s arrows” (the warfare metaphor), as if I were launching some sort of assault on Christendom. He compares God’s authority to that of a federal official, a police officer, and to parents (I am reminded of JS Philips’s Your God is Too Small). The person who chooses whether to obey God’s commands is compared to a rebellious teenager.

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