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: Good Without God

What do I think of Greg Epstein’s book published by Harper Collins? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Epstein’s book Good Without God is an odd read. It’s written by an atheist no doubt, but it’s not the same shrill angry rant against religion that you encounter. Epstein does strike me as someone I could have a reasonable conversation with, even though at times Epstein does make many of the same mistakes about religion.

Consider how he says that religious people like to say that Hitler was an atheist to avoid talking about the Crusades and the Inquisition. Hitler wasn’t an atheist, but there’s no doubt that Stalin, Mao, and Pol-Pot were. I also think we should talk about the Crusades and Inquisition. He also points out that the Nazi belt buckles had “God with us” written on them.

Which is what they’d had long before. It was a motto that was made and not made specifically for the military. It just carried over to the Nazis. By this standard, all of our wars have to be specifically religious wars because we have “In God We Trust” written on our money. (Wait. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. A lot of atheists might run with that.)

Epstein’s book surprisingly is a lot of self-help for atheists and thinking about many different issues. He does at least think that atheists shouldn’t be seeking to destroy religion. He does think some have been too ardent in their war on religion. Still, as you read the book, you get the impression that a lot of atheists are trying hard on so many issues that don’t make sense. Can you speak of being fortunate in anything for instance? What happens when you want to thank someone and there’s no one to thank?

Epstein also doesn’t really answer the main question. What does it mean to be good? At one point, he says that there is a knockout blow to theism on this. It’s the Euthyphro dilemma from Plato. If you don’t know this, it’s where Socrates questions Euthyphro on goodness and says “Is something good because the gods will it, or do the gods will it because it is good?”

This is supposed to be a killer to the moral argument because how is it known what is good? Just replace gods with God. Now some might say “God’s nature is the good.” I have just as much a problem with that. The problem is the same. It still doesn’t tell us what the good is. “The good is God’s nature.” Okay. How does that fit?

The sad thing is that this question was answered not too long after Plato. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics wrote about what goodness is and said that the good is that at which all things aim. Thus, he answered this by giving a definition of goodness. He spent some time fleshing that out of course, but he did answer the question. Unfortunately, atheists are a little over 2,000 years behind the times.

In fact, Epstein after this seems to take an approach of moral relativism, but if there is no truth to a moral issue, how can you have a debate over which view is true? You’re just discussing preferences. How can anyone even be good without God if good itself has no real meaning?

Now Epstein later on, does try to answer this question more by saying that things are only good in relation to human beings. In other words, if we weren’t here, there wouldn’t be anything good. I dare say this strikes me as a bizarre position. Either we discover goodness in these things and they are good, or goodness is an idea we throw onto them but they don’t essentially possess.

At this, we could just as well throw the Euthyphro dilemma back at Epstein and have him answer it. Is something good because of how it relates to us, or does it relate to us the way it does because it is good? Without a proper foundation for goodness, Epstein will be caught in his own dilemma. He could escape by postulating an objective goodness beyond human beings, but then he has a problem with what this will be ground in.

What this means is that in the long run, Epstein has written a book to address a question and never really addressed it accurately himself. Not only that, we could just as well ask who is asking this question? Who is the theist out there making a claim that you can’t be good without believing in God? Perhaps there are a few laypeople making this claim, but most of the scholars and academics in the field would never make such a claim.

Epstein’s book can be an interesting read to see just how it is a lot of non-religious people think, but it’s still desperately lacking. In fact, if anything, Epstein’s book shows me even more that goodness makes no sense without God. Hopefully Epstein will see that same way soon.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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