Moral Ontology vs Moral Epistemology

What is the difference between how you come to know morality and the reality of morality? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

One of the main arguments used for God is the moral argument. This is the idea that we need God to explain objective morality. While I hold to this, I prefer to speak of the argument from goodness. Still, there is a common misconception when it comes to this.

The theist will tell someone that they need to be able to explain objective morality. The skeptic will often respond that they can know these moral truths by some way such as empathy. This will then lead to laughter on the part of the skeptic saying you don’t need to believe in God to know moral truths.

The skeptic is absolutely right. In order to know moral truths, you don’t need to know that God exists. Since you don’t need to know God exists to know moral truths, then obviously God is not needed for moral truths. Right?

If a skeptic thinks this, this is a common misconception of the argument. This is not about how we know moral truths. This is about how those moral truths exist. We can all for the most part agree that it’s wrong to torture babies for fun. What we want to ask is how that truth itself came to be.

In a universe that is the result of blind chaotic events with no guidance behind them whatsoever, how is it that a moral truth relating specifically to human beings exists? Now as a Thomist, I would more ask how goodness itself exists since this is not a property of something that can be measured by physical and/or scientific means, but let’s stick to moral truths. Do we create the moral truths or do we discover them?

If we create moral truths, then they can be whatever we want them to be. We can say that it’s a supposed truth that it’s wrong to torture babies for fun, but then we can switch that and say that on Tuesdays between 4-5 PM in our time zones, it’s okay then. This would also really do away with objective morality which would mean there’s nothing to explain.

We don’t do this with scientific truths. It’s not that Isaac Newton created gravity. He discovered a scientific truth that was already there. In the same way, with morality, we discover truths that are already there. Before we humans arrived on the scene, there was a moral truth about babies being tortured for fun that was in existence.

And this is the question of ontology, the study of being. Epistemology, how we know, deals with how we discover the truths. The moral argument is not about how we discover the truths. There could be perfectly naturalistic ways of knowing moral truths just like there are for mathematical or scientific truths or other kinds of truths. What needs to be explained is how it is that those truths exist.

Feel free to explain how it is that you think we know these truths. There could be multiple ways or one way and that’s a fascinating discussion, but skeptics of theism need to stop confusing how we know with that there is a truth to know. It’s a fundamental mistake in the moral argument.

In Christ,
Nick Peters