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

Book Plunge: In Search of Moral Knowledge

What do I think of R. Scott Smith’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I wish to thank IVP for providing a copy of this book for a review first off. I find the moral argument to be a highly interesting argument. Now my own variation of it is that I prefer to use the fourth way of Aquinas and have it be the argument from goodness of which morality is a subsection of that. Yet insofar as it goes, the moral argument works fine and Smith has given an impressive tour de force on this.

Smith starts off with the history of how we got to this point in understanding morality today. He starts with the Bible and what is found in both testaments. He then goes on to look at the work of Plato and Aristotle and takes us through the medieval period and then through many of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment period and beyond and even goes up to interacting with postmodern looks at morality. At this point, there can be no doubt that Smith has done his research and done it well.

Smith also seeks to be as fair as he can with those whom he is dialoguing with. He admits that he has made errors in understanding past opponents at times and tries to read their works in light of all that they are saying. Smith indeed shows impressive scholarship in the field. At this point, I do think it’s important to let the reader know that I think he will need more than a layman’s understanding of the field to get the most out of this book.

Smith in the end concludes that naturalistic theories not only do not account for moral knowledge, but that they do not account for any knowledge whatsoever. This is true in whatever case he looks at as each position begs certain questions. There is also the problem that many of them deny essences and for Smith, a physicalist explanation of the nature of man is just incapable of being able to provide knowledge. We have to have essences of some sort.

Smith then roots the knowledge that we have in God. The book ends in the last chapter with a more apologetic approach looking at various issues such as the case for the resurrection of Jesus and the problem of evil. No doubt, each of these is brief and I would have liked to have seen even more in some areas at least in terms of other works that were cited since these would be out of the field that Smith is normally writing in which is fine. There were a few points on each section that I would disagree with, but they do not detract overall as Smith does provide excellent sources still in each case, though as I said I would have liked still more.

One main problem I would have liked to have addressed that rarely is is that I do not often see a definition of good given. It is as if we assume when we get together and debate what is good and what is evil that we all know what these terms really mean. In fact, this is the first question I usually raise when I debate moral issues with someone. I agree with Smith of course that love and justice are good and that murder, rape, and torturing babies for fun is wrong. Yet when I say “X is good” what do I mean?

Still, in the end, I think Smith’s work is an excellent one that will certainly leave much food for thought. For anyone who is wanting to deal with the moral argument, mark this down as essential reading.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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