A Beginner’s Guide to the Argument from Goodness

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Plainly, humans believe in good and evil. Things like grace, honesty, and fidelity are deeply valued, while things like rape and the torture of infants are condemned. All of us harbour moral intuitions and we all feel the prick of conscience. Perhaps we don’t always agree about just which things are good or evil in a given situation, but there does appear to be universal acknowledgement that some things really are good, and some things really are evil. In other words, humans just are profoundly moral.

Why is this? Where does the phenomenon of morality come from? And why does it seem to be hard-wired into us?

The argument from ‘good’, or the moral argument, claims that the best explanation for morality is the existence of God. Usually the argument takes the following form:

  1. Objective moral facts are real.
  2. God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral facts.
  3. Therefore, God (probably) exists.

To see how persuasive this argument is let’s take it step by step.

Are there objective moral facts?

It seems obvious that humans operate with an implicit commitment to moral facts being real. They shape our understanding of meaning and purpose: we value human dignity and pursue the good life. They also undergird our justice systems: we hunger for justice. But are they objectively real? Are they real outside of our human imagination?

Some philosophers deny that morality is real at all. Such moral nihilists believe that the whole idea of their being norms about good and evil, and right and wrong is an illusion. On this view, any moral obligations we feel are entirely imagined. For these moral sceptics there simply are no ‘oughts.’ Like all radical scepticism, this view is possible, but is deeply dissatisfying as a worldview.

Others agree that morality is a real phenomenon but disagree that it is objective. Instead, they think   that it is grounded simply in the human experience. Usually these thinkers explain morality in terms of human flourishing. Subjectivism, however, suffers from serious problems. First among them is that virtually no one thinks or talks or lives like it is the case. We don’t, in fact, believe things like ‘rape appears wrong’, or ‘rape is bad because it hinders the human species prospering’ (indeed you could easily make an evolutionary case that for rape benefitting the survival of the fittest!). Instead we intrinsically believe (and think and feel and say) that rape just is wrong.

Another problem is that there’s too many features of morality that subjectivism struggles to explain. So, sometimes we deeply value actions that run counter to the human prospering model. Here’s an example: in 1997 the Australian Navy travelled 2500km into stormy seas to rescue a single stranded British sailor. The operation risked the lives of many to save one – and at a cost $6million dollars. This makes little sense in sheer evolutionary or utilitarian terms; it only makes good sense if every single human life carries profound objective value.

While it is possible in theory for morality to be imagined, the phenomenon doesn’t in fact operate that way. Instead, it is entirely reasonable to think that the best explanation for our intrinsic morality is that objective moral facts are real.

Is God the best explanation?

Next, the moral argument says that God is the best explanation for objective morality. I say best because there are other possibilities.

One explanation offered by some is that morality is a basic reality that needs no supernatural explanation. This view thinks that, like the laws of physics, the universe just is supported by moral laws (and no one knows why). They think that this is a better explanation than theism because theism also rests on an unexplained basic reality – that God is just good (and no one knows why) – and theism is a more complicated explanation than naturalism. This view has significant problems. One is that there seem no obvious reasons for this sort of law to just exist in a foundationally impersonal universe. Moral laws don’t seem to be the same type of law as, say, the mechanical laws of physics. Another is that it’s hard to see how a naturalistic morality can be binding or normative: perhaps we can describe a naturally good life, but on just what authority can we demand the pursuit of it, or censure the abuse of it?

It is also possible to hold to a supernatural case that doesn’t involve God. In theory at least, the universe could have been created moral by super aliens or a multitude of moral gods.

While other explanations are possible, God is the best explanation. Indeed, the Christian conception of God, in particular, is uniquely suited to explain moral facts because morality is essentially personal and social and normative. It describes the intrinsic value of persons as well as the rights and obligations we have toward one another. Among the possible basic moral realities, only the Christian God displays these essential features. Only the Trinitarian God is essentially personal and essentially social and essentially loving.  Also, because the Trinitarian God ‘owns’ His creation, only He has the authority to command good and punish evil. In short, the Trinitarian God best explains the nature and normativity of moral facts.

Does morality prove God’s existence?

The last step in the moral argument claims that God is probably real. This conclusion follows logically, but its force depends upon how convinced its hearers are by the first two premises. Neither the claim that moral facts are objectively real, nor God as the best explanation are indisputably or uncontroversially true, so the moral argument is not inescapable. Despite this, it is eminently reasonable, and very many thoughtful people have found it elegantly and intuitively persuasive. While (perhaps) it lacks the power to coerce belief in God, it remains among the most powerful tools in the case for reasonable Christian faith. It is for this reason it underpinned C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity and remains powerfully defended by philosophers like William Lane Craig, C. Stephen Evans, Robert Adams and recently by Baggert and Walls in God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning.

Richard Shumack is a philosopher of religion and a part-time Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. He is also Director of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology. He teaches critical thinking and speaks regularly on the ethics of religious belief, worldview, Islamic philosophy, and (sometimes) sport. He is the author of The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity.

Further Resources:

https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-1/s1-moral-argument/moral-argument-part-1/ (Introductory)

Baggett & Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning1st Edition, Oxford University Press, 2016.  (Advanced)