Against the Theistic Moral Argument.

by metacognizant

The typical theistic moral argument (TMA) seeks to establish God’s existence or His actions on the basis of morality, moral duties, moral values, moral knowledge, or intrinsic worth. Conjoining and reducing these arguments to a mere sentence, one sees that their conclusion is that, without God, it is not possible to be both moral as well as consistent with one’s own worldview. The purpose of this blog is to show that said conclusion is untenable. In this blog, I will focus on the two most heralded candidates for the TMA, Mark D. Linville’s argument and William Lane Craig’s argument. By showing their arguments to be flawed, I will ipso facto disprove the many varieties of the TMA.

Linville’s TMA

In his article for The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (BCNT), Linville makes three main assertions: (1) objective moral facts exist; (2) moral knowledge exists, and under evolutionary naturalism (EN) there is no moral knowledge; and (3) personal dignity is the basis of a Kantian ethic, and without being made in the imago Dei, humans do not have personal dignity—or intrinsic worth. Implicitly, we see that Linville endorses the Kantian ethic over the Divine Command Theory (DCT), but he puts a theistic twist on the traditional Kantian ethic. I have no issue with (1). In fact, it is the purpose of this blog to show that (1) is tenable in conjunction with EN. I will show, however, that (2) and (3) are not true. I will first attack (3). Once (3) is shown to be false, I will show that (2) is also false.

Linville defines personal dignity as “a moral value or worth that individual persons possess intrinsically as persons…. [I]t is a nonrelational property, its value is mind-independent, and thus not reducible to or derivative of the valuings of some agent or other. If persons have dignity, then they ought to be valued for their own sake even if, in fact, they are not” (BCNT, 431-432). We can see that intrinsic worth easily bridges the isought chasm that is notoriously difficult to cross. Once this chasm is traversed, a synoptic ethic can eventually emerge—as in a typical Kantian ethic. Linville takes considerable time appraising the entire breadth of naturalistic ethical theories—as well as a variety of religious ethical theories—, and finds them all wanting in affording personal dignity. It is not the purpose of this blog to systematically review Linville’s work on these theories; I do not want to defend all of them. Instead, I want to offer an account of how personal dignity can be afforded under EN.

Linville mentions Stephen Gould’s basis for something such as personal dignity—intrinsic worth—as the radical contingency of Homo sapiens. To quote Linville, “It is wildly improbable that we are here at all, and so there is wonder in this fact. Were natural history somehow rewound to play all over again, it is astonishingly improbable that anything like ourselves would form any of the branches on the evolutionary tree” (BCNT, 442). Linville then states, “But if Homo sapiens is astonishingly improbable, so are Ursus horribilis and Rhododendron arboretum. So are the Himalayas, the Isle of Crete, and, for that matter, each and every Mississippi towhead as well as the Milky Way itself. Improbability alone is not sufficient for singling out persons as having any special significance” (BCNT, 442). Linville, then, applies an informal reduction ad absurdum to Gould’s position and leaves it there, obviously feeling that he has absolved Gould’s position of any credibility for offering personal dignity. But has Linville actually absolved this position?

Let’s review evolutionary theory. The forms of life on the top of the evolutionary tree are the most evolved. That they are the most evolved means that they have had the greatest chance to evolve differently, or into different forms than we see. To state this formally, the forms of life on the top of the evolutionary tree are not only radically contingent, they are radically contingent in themselves as well as upon the forms of life below them in addition to the environmental conditions that were present when they evolved from these lesser forms. This radical contingency upon the forms of life below the higher forms and environmental conditions present during evolution also applies for the forms of life below those forms, and the forms below those forms, et cetera, all the way to the bottom of the tree. Clearly, then, the improbability and contingency of each and every higher form of life is exponentially greater than the improbability and contingency of the form of life it evolved from—to say nothing of the number of genetic mutations necessary for each evolution. So while Ursus horribilis, the Himalayas, and the Milky Way are all radically contingent, they all have varying exponential degrees of contingency, and those on the top of the evolutionary tree clearly have the greatest degrees of contingency. And because of our current evolutionary status, we are easily the most contingent forms of life—not only are we Homo sapiens, we are Homo sapiens with the intellectual and neurological capacity to comprehend and manipulate the universe. We could maintain our status as Homo sapiens while losing this neurological and intellectual capacity; we did not always have it—it is a fairly recent development in our evolutionary history—and if, say, a natural disaster occurs that obliterates nearly all of our species, odds are is that we’d eventually lose this capacity—or at the least regress substantially in our intellectual abilities.

To afford personal dignity to an entity due to its improbability is rather self-explanatory. If something is rare, it is worth something, and the rarer it is, the more that it is worth. We use this principle in economics all the time. Remember that even Linville defines personal dignity as an intrinsic worth simply due to the ontological status of the possessor—“persons as persons.” A radically contingent entity is radically contingent in itself—it has worth simply because of what it is. To put this another way, a radically contingent being is special–by definition–and intrinsically so. A being that is intrinsically special does indeed have an intrinsic moral worth. The greater the contingency of that entity, the more intrinsic worth it has. This worth is also objective, as it exists whether or not anyone appraises it.

This means that the ethic that I’m developing runs a little differently than the imago Dei ethic for personal dignity. While we as persons have intrinsic worth, that worth is not infinite, as it is within the imago Dei ethic. In addition, those forms of life lower on the evolutionary tree also have intrinsic worth, simply not to the degree that we persons do. Further, our environment is also afforded intrinsic worth, though to a lesser degree, as it is also contingent (it is never afforded intrinsic worth to the degree that any form of life within that environment is, as should be obvious from what has been explicated above). However, this is obvious to us. We perceive that it is objectively morally wrong to harm a chimpanzee. We also perceive that it is objectively morally wrong to pollute the environment—although not to the degree that ending a life within that environment is. Additionally, while we perceive it is wrong to an ant, we perceive that the moral wrong done by harming one of these animals is significantly less than the moral wrong done by harming a chimpanzee. This is all consistent with the contingency ethic I have developed. We can draw parallels to the imago Dei ethic, since as stewards of God’s creation—made in His image—, we are to protect this creation and treat all of it with dignity. As a theist, I’m reluctant to admit it, but this contingency ethic makes more sense with our moral knowledge of the differing degrees of moral wrong done by harming an ant and a chimpanzee: under the imago Dei ethic, all creatures are simply God’s creation and are afforded equal dignity, but under the contingency ethic, they have differing degrees of worth.

Now let’s go back to Linville’s second assertion, (2) moral knowledge exists, and under evolutionary naturalism (EN) there is no moral knowledge. Linville explicates an argument for this. His argument is as follows:

L1) If EN is true, then human morality is a by-product of natural selection.
L2) If human morality is a by-product of natural selection, then there is no moral knowledge.
L3) There is moral knowledge.
C) EN is false.

To paraphrase Linville, he defines moral knowledge as a correct understanding of the truth value of objective moral facts. Linville defends (L2) by arguing that moral facts are independent of cognitive faculties aimed at fitness. While this is easily refuted by recent neuroscientific findings, this is not the premise I seek to dismantle here. It should be obvious that (L1) is not necessarily true with all I have explicated above. Even if theism is false and EN is true, human morality is still explicable in terms of personal dignity.

William Lane Craig’s TMA

William Lane Craig’s TMA runs as follows,

W1) If God does not exist, then there are no objective moral values.
W2) Objective moral values exist.
C) Therefore, God exists.

But as I have explicated above, (W1) is not true. It is objectively wrong to harm a human because they have intrinsic worth—even on EN. Therefore, Craig’s argument fails.

The moral law argument

Another version of the TMA is championed by C. S. Lewis, Francis Collins, Ravi Zacharias, and Norman Geisler. While it may be possible to be good without God on EN, knowledge of evolutionary theory plays a key role in this, and this knowledge has not always existed. This argument is attractive to some because it attempts to draw a conclusion to God from human nature, rather than our current moral philosophy. I will offer not a rebutting defeater but an undercutting defeater to the argument in general (i.e., there’s no good reason to accept it over its denial). The argument can be formally stated as follows:

ML1) A moral law is recognized by humans universally.
ML2) A law cannot exist without a lawgiver.
C) Therefore, a transcendent moral lawgiver exists.

(ML1) has come under attack due to anthropological findings on the diversity of cultural ethics (for example, in some cultures sexual promiscuity is promoted; in others, it’s shamed). It is alleged that no such law exists, and any universality we feel towards our own moral nature is simply due to us being raised with a certain concept as right or wrong simply “because it is.” Proponents of this argument typically reply that the universality of the moral law still exists, and the universal similarities by far outweigh the differences. Proponents further state that the moral law has simply been warped by a small minority of societies, or that the law has been tweeked by societies to promote cultural growth at the expense of following the true law.

What’s implicit in (ML1) is the assumption that if morality were truly arbitrary, or dependent on evolutionary advantages unique to distinct population groups, we would expect to find a variety of moral laws originating in societies encompassed by different circumstances. However, cultural theorist Rene Girard has put forward a fantastic fundamental anthropology, and his thesis explains this law. For Girard, the function of the law is to prevent “mimesis” and the “mimetic crisis” (these terms refer somewhat to imitation, though our English term doesn’t capture the extent of his definition), which inevitably results in violence, murder, and the possible dissolution of a society if not for the “victimage mechanism.” I intend on writing a blog explicating Girard’s work, but for now, bear with me; it’s unnecessary to understand these terms for the purposes of this blog.

Girard’s thesis explains the general universality of prohibitions (the moral law), as mimesis is innate in humans and thus provoked in nearly universal ways. His thesis also explains select differences in prohibitions: what provokes the mimetic crisis in one society may possibly prevent it in another, leading to one society prohibiting what another promotes. His thesis also explains some odd prohibitions—such as prohibitions against twins, mirrors, or photography—that are otherwise left unexplained. Thus, his thesis has a greater explanatory power and scope on what we call the “moral law” than does any other. (ML1) is therefore subject to an undercutting defeater. The premise is not rebutted, but its denial is no more or less plausible than its acceptance, and we have no good reason to hold the argument as sound.


It should be obvious that a synoptic naturalistic ethic is explicable using the Kantian basis of personal dignity. Hints at environmental duties and duties to other forms of life have already been given in this blog. One can therefore be good without God, and it is not necessary to postulate God to explain our apparently innate morality. Thus, the traditional TMA fails.