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God or Meaningless Morality

Written by Joe Pettit

Of all the arguments for God’s existence that have been tried over the centuries, the one that makes the most sense and still works for me is that the existence of God is the only way to explain moral truth.

Here is the argument: 1) in order for moral analysis to make sense, in order for there to be a real distinction between good and bad, better and worse, there must be a real measure, or actualization, of moral truth.  2) Let us, for reasons to be clarified below, call this real measure of moral truth God.  3) The consequence of denying God’s existence, then, is also denying the existence of a real measure of moral truth.  4) Denying the existence of a real measure of moral truth leaves only the individual to measure moral difference.  5) When only the individual can measure moral difference, the result is moral solipsism.  6) Moral solipsism renders the state of being morally good/bad/right/wrong a matter of individual measure, and therefore a matter of individual preference.  7) Morality reduced to individual preference is no morality at all.  8) Therefore, to deny the existence of God is also to deny the reality of any moral difference among actual or possible states of affairs.  The denial of God renders morality meaningless.

Now, some clarification.  We need a real measure of moral truth just like we need real measures of something like length.  If I asked you to measure a line in terms of zots, you would likely ask me how long a zot is.  If I told you it does not matter how long a zot is, that you could decide for yourself how long a zot is, you would likely wonder about the point of measuring the line in the first place.  Now, if I asked 50 people to measure the same line in terms of zots, and I told all fifty that each of them could decide for themselves how long a zot is, then I would likely get 50 different answers about the length of the line.  None of those measures could meaningfully be considered a true indication of the length of the line.  In fact, measuring the line would seem rather silly.  Measuring would be a solipsistic activity.

We are capable of measuring lines because we have real measures of length like the meter and the foot.  These are agreed upon distances.  Thus, some might object that we don’t need God for a real measure of moral truth, only an agreed upon measure.  But such a comparison fails for a couple of reasons.  First, there is no agreed upon measure, and there likely will never be one.  Different people and different groups have different measures of moral truth, much like the different values for the zots discussed above.  Second, there is the problem of our fallibility.  The definition of a meter is strictly analytic, much likely the definition of a bachelor as an unmarried man.  Our fallibility regarding measurement would be found in our acts of measuring, not in our definition of the units of measure.  However, the measure of moral truth requires judgment, and in so far as we are capable of erroneous judgment, we would have to be able to be able to ask why any particular agreed upon judgment of moral truth (assuming one could be found) were true; thus, only raising again the question of what that measure of moral truth is.

One objection to this argument relates to comparative measures.  We do not need an agreed upon measure of length to know that one stick is longer than another, so why doesn’t it follow that even without an objective measure of moral worth we should still be able to make comparative moral statements like “This state of affairs is better than that.”  However, if both of these examples presuppose the possibility of measurement, then the analogy begs the question.  I know what it means for something to be longer than something else because I can, if necessary, measure each and explain why I can say that one is longer than another.  In the case of the moral evaluation of states of affairs, I have not yet shown what it would mean for one situation to be more moral than other.  The search for a measure of moral truth would thus have to continue.

So why call any real measure of moral truth “God”?  The answer lies in both the scope and status of any real measure of moral truth.  The scope must be anywhere and anytime in the universe.  The scope must be as vast as any possible place a moral agent could make a moral choice (thus, this measure would be as true for critters on another planet as for humans).  The status of the real measure must be infallible.  If the measure were fallible, one would have to ask how one could tell the difference between a true and a false measure, and this would be impossible if the measure itself were fallible.  If the measure must be infinite and infallible, that’s enough (for now) to call the measure God.

The absence of real measure of moral truth results in solipsism because there is nothing left by which the individual can measure moral truth that is not itself capable of moral error.  All other measures of moral truth are themselves open to error (parents, friends, countries, cultures, political parties, etc.).  In order to make sense of these groups making moral errors, the measure of moral truth must be something other than them.  This line of reasoning is as old as Socrates’s rebuttal of Thrasymachus in the Republic.  If I choose to follow the moral guidelines of another person or group, I do so either because I think the guidelines are more moral than others, in which case I must make sense of what it means for them to be more moral, or I do so out of mere preference.  Without a real measure of moral worth, choosing to follow any person, group, or cause is at best a matter of preference.  The choice itself cannot be said to matter in any moral way, and so morality itself becomes irrelevant.

One happy consequence of this argument being in some important way true is that if a real measure of moral truth exists, the meaning of life is to live as much as possible in accordance with that measure of moral truth, to contribute to making real as much moral truth as possible.  Thus, life is meaningful even without an afterlife.  If my life comes to a complete, final, ontological ending, it still was a valuable and meaningful life it helped to realize moral truth.  All notions of the afterlife, likewise, are only meaningful in so far as they can be understood in terms of greater realizations of moral truth.  Here, I think the Buddhists are on to something important.

One last thought.  Just because a real measure of moral truth exists, does not mean that any human can know what that measure is or what it implies with absolute confidence.  Rather, we must struggle and argue with and amongst ourselves regarding how best to advance moral truth.  Does this place us in the same position as those who were allowed to define the length of zots?  No, because in the case of zots, there was no real measure to approximate in the first place.  Without a real measure of moral truth, the notion of moral approximation and moral error becomes meaningless.

So, which is it, God or meaningless morality?  Of course, this argument does not prove God’s existence.  It only establishes two options: God or meaningless morality.  Thus, the argument requires something of an inductive moment.  Almost all of us think that moral differences are real.  We really do think that child abuse is immoral and providing shelter, food, and care for a homeless child is moral.  We have countless experiences of moral difference every day.  If my argument is correct, these experiences of moral difference are either epiphenomenal additions to instinctive or enculturated behavior amounting to nothing more than verbal, eidetic, and emotive ways of reinforcing these behaviors, or they are small signs of the reality of God in our lives.