Moral Arguments for the Existence of God

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From the time of Immanuel Kant to the present day, a great many attempts have been made to base arguments for God's existence not upon the mere fact that there is a world, nor on the general orderliness it manifests, but on a very special feature of that worldhuman moral experience. The popularity of moral arguments is not hard to understand. David Hume and Kant had produced powerful and apparently disabling criticisms of the traditional arguments of natural theology, criticisms that seemed decisive against any conceivable type of argument to God as the explanation of the world. Hume had no alternative theistic argument to offer and, insofar as theoretical reasoning is concerned, Kant had none either. The structure of Kant's ethical philosophy, however, accorded to "practical reason" privileges not shared by theoretical reason. If God was to retain any place in the Kantian system, the weight of apologetic had to be shifted from the theoretical to the practical, to exploring the implications of our moral situation. Between Kant's day and the middle of the twentieth century, skepticism about the theoretical arguments tended to deepen rather than to lighten; hence, there has been no lack of religious apologists following Kant's new "moral route" to God.

Another reason for the popularity of moral argument is religious rather than philosophical. Even if the argument to God as First Cause or "necessary being" were valid, these notions of deity can be more of an embarrassment than a help to the religious imagination. They present us with a divine object or superobject, whereas religion demands that God be primarily known as person. A moral argument offers hope of overcoming that external and thinglike character: It ensures that concepts of God will be, from the outset, personal concepts.

Typical Moral Arguments

Among the many varieties of moral argument, the following are both historically important and recurrent patterns. Several of them may be found in a single author.

First, if one understands moral rules as "commands," one may argue to the existence of a "commander." The commander cannot be the individual human moral agent, for what today I command myself to do, I can tomorrow command myself not to do. I can have absolute moral obligations only if a God exists to command them. Because I do have absolute moral obligations, it follows that God exists.

Second, a minor variant of this moral argument claims that if we recognize moral authority, we must ipso facto recognize the existence of God as alone able to confer that authority. We judge that the moral law retains its authoritativeness whether particular human wills are at any time actually accepting its rules and principles or not; therefore, the source of its authority must lie altogether outside those human wills.

Third, the notion of "moral law" itself is said to be incomplete without reference to God, for law implies "lawgiver," a divine legislator. Our very acknowledgment of a moral law, therefore, presupposes theism.

Fourth, it has been claimed that there is a remarkable degree of agreement among the moral judgments made by men in widely different cultures and historical periods. Many apparent disagreements can be attributed to differences in belief and thus held to be not fundamental. This impressive measure of agreement, it is argued, can be accounted for only on the supposition that God has written his law in the hearts of men.

Certain of the most interesting and influential moral arguments take as their premise some part of the content of the moral law itself. We are under moral obligation to perfect ourselves and to attain a "highest good" (summum bonum) that is manifestly unattainable in a life lived under the conditions we know here and now. We can, at best, make a start to a moral development that requires very different conditions for its completion. But since that complete development is demanded of us as duty, it must be attainable. God and immortality are thus presupposed in our actual moral experience.

Analysis of Moral Arguments

Let us briefly consider each of the varieties of moral arguments again and attempt to estimate their strengths and weaknesses.

Of the moral commander argument we can pertinently ask: Is the notion of command basic to ethics? Certainly not in the sense of parade-ground commands, commands passively received and acted upon unreflectively. Such obedience is a long way from moral deliberation and judgment. An immature moral agent may see his duties as commands (parental, for example); but the mark of mature moral judgment is self-commitment to a policy on which one has deliberated. This policy may or may not be in harmony with someone's command; in any case, it does not owe its authenticity to its being commanded. "Here I stand," one may say; and this can express a settled resolution, one not to be made one day and rescinded the next.

Even if it were established that a celestial being unvaryingly commanded a certain policy as obligatory in an absolute sense, the unvaryingness of his command could not itself furnish the ground for the absoluteness of the obligation. For it is at least logically possible that this celestial being ought not to command unvaryingly what he does so command. If he commands what is right and obligatory, that is cause for thankfulness; but one could scarcely be thankful over a truth of logic. "Unvaryingly" must not equal "stubbornly" or "with chronic moral blindness"; these are unthinkable possibilities for Christian theism. But this does not affect the point being made: that absoluteness is not analyzable in terms of unvaryingness of command. Moreover, the Christian wishes to make one all-important moral judgment that could not possibly have its absoluteness reduced to commandedness by Godthe judgment, namely, that God is morally perfect. But if a human being can make this moral judgment uncommanded, why can he not make others also?

Analogous criticisms can be made of the argument from the authority or authoritativeness of the moral law to the need for a divine source of authority. To put the main objection boldly: It is of the very nature of a fundamental moral judgment that it should be made on no authority but that of the agent who makes it. Certainly there are occasions when I may believe that another person has a superior measure of insight into the situation in which I have to act; I may then properly accept his judgment in lieu of my own. Yet if this is not to be a culpable moral abdication, I must have good grounds for trusting my temporary "authority": I must judge him to be morally reliable. But this is itself a moral judgmentone that I can make on nobody's authority but my own; or if on someone's authority, then this new person must be judged reliable on my own authority, and so on. A legitimate appeal to authority presupposes that autonomous moral judgments have already been made. Our argument held that we must postulate God as the authorizer of all our moral judgmentsotherwise they would carry no authority; but we find, contrariwise, that God can play the role of authority only if we are able to make certain moral judgments without appealing to any external authority whatsoever.

The third version alleged that the notion of "moral law" is incomplete unless God is postulated as lawgiver. Law, however, is a word with many strands to its meaning; and it is only by failing to distinguish certain of the strands that this can appear to be a plausible line of argument. It is perfectly intelligible to say that some person or group of persons has laid down positive laws, rules for a community, backed by penal sanctions. The existence of a developed body of such laws normally implies the existence of lawmakers or codifiers. It is quite another thing (and not really intelligible) to speak of anyone, human or divine, "laying down" the moral law itself. Laws, rules, and regulations are of the right logical type to be laid down in accordance with, or in conflict with, the moral law. But the moral law itself is not the sort of thing that needs to be, or that logically can be, laid down or promulgated by anyone. No conceivable story about men or gods could be taken, without absurdity, to describe the inauguration (or the annulling) of the moral law. Commands might be uttered, inscriptions miraculously appear; but it would never become a trivial or tautological question to ask of their content, "Is this in fact morally binding?" The distinctively moral authority of a rule or law does not lie in the prestige or power of its initiator, nor in the circumstances of its first recognition.

The argument from the convergence of moral codes is most often set forth in an objectivist ethical context. The existence of objective moral qualities "seen" to be there, or "intuited," by different moral agents in widely different places and times remains inexplicable unless we posit a God who creates and morally guides. It is less often noticed that the argument is perhaps strongercertainly no weakerif it is set forth in a subjectivist context instead. This was apparently noted by F. R. Tennant, who (in a conversation reported by R. B. Braithwaite) argued on the following lines. Failing the existence of any objective moral properties or moral relations, it is all the more remarkable that there should be such a measure of congruity among moral judgments or decisions: sufficiently remarkable to point the way, again, to divine activity. Yet this argument is not at all conclusive. The supernatural hypothesis that it puts forward is not the only hypothesis available to account for the data; and it has the disadvantage that it is not empirically confirmable or refutable. Powerful competitors would be arguments from the relative stability of basic human needs, desires, and aversions or from the pervasiveness of aggressive and social drives in the personality. These alone might well account for the actual agreements among moral judgments and would account for them without invoking the immensely problematic notion of divine causality.

Presupposition of the Highest Good

Our last group of arguments began its history in modern philosophy with a statement of Kant: "The idea of the highest good cannot be realized by man himself ; yet he discovers within himself the duty to work for this end. Hence he finds himself impelled to believe in the cooperation or management of a moral Ruler of the world, by means of which alone this goal can be reached (Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone ).

Kant was not betraying the austerity or rigor of his moral philosophy; he was not offering religious inducements to moral behavior. He would have denied distinctively moral worth to someone whose "dutiful" actions were aimed at securing his own postmortem happiness. The emphasis in his argument is wholly on the intelligibility and rationality of the moral demand; it was inconceivable to him that the categorical imperative should be a mocking voice, laying obligations upon us and at the same time denying the environment in which alone the obligations could be fulfilled. (It has been claimed that Kant had abandoned these moral arguments by the time he wrote the Opus Postumum, but the contrary view has been argued more forcibly; see G. A. Schrader, "Kant's Presumed Repudiation .")

The strength of Kant's moral argument is clearly dependent on the strength of his ethical theory as a whole. It is only because he saw moral judgment as the work of practical reason (not as a matter of emotive reactions or responses) that he was able to make plausible use of those judgments as a basis for theological demands. Any fundamental criticism of the Kantian ethic would ipso facto imperil the theology.

The argument is equally imperiled if we deny that we are under obligation to attain the highest good and our individual moral perfection, saying that we are obliged only to strive toward these unrealizable ends. We might indeed reverse Kant's argument as follows. From our observation of the world we conclude that the highest good and our moral perfection are unattainable; therefore, we can have no obligation to attain these but, at best, only an obligation to strive toward them. We can interpret them in Kant's own term, regulatively, as Kant himself sometimes did. (See John R. Silber, "Kant's Conception of the Highest Good .")

The postulating of God and immortality is aimed at solving an antinomyof making intelligible what, without the postulate, is inexplicable. But does the postulation of God in fact produce intelligibility, a lifting of mystery? Or is there not so much mystery in the postulate itself that the final effect is a deepening, not a lightening, of perplexity? If independence, autonomy, and freedom are essential to a moral agent, that autonomy will presumably remain essential in a hereafter as well as in the here and now. But, if so, the postulation of God and immortality can by no means ensure that the ultimate moral goals will, in fact, be reached, even though it was precisely to ensure their attainment that the postulates were made.

Kant's theory of time as a "form of sensibility" makes it very dubious whether he could have spoken meaningfully of a continuing moral development and the attainment of the highest good in a hereafter. Granted that he disclaimed all theoretical insight into what such an existence would be like (this measure of agnosticism is part of the force of postulate as distinct from demonstrate ), the notion of time still remains essential to Kant's moral argument. If we are unable to give meaning to it in that context, the argument cannot but suffer.

It is possible to reject some portions of Kant's detailed argumentation and yet to advance a moral argument of a definitely Kantian type. This was notably done in W. R. Sorley's Moral Values and the Idea of God and in A. E. Taylor's The Faith of a Moralist. Neither of these writers held the moral argument to be the sole and all-sufficient theistic proof, but they did believe that without it the case for theism is weak and dubious.

Sorley attempted first to show that "the moral order is an objectively valid order, that moral values belong to the nature of reality," and that "the history of the world-process is fitted to realise this order." If we were to assume that the goal of the world-process is the realizing of happiness, there would be the weightiest empirical evidence against us. With moral worth and goodness it is different. Conditions that work against happiness may work for, not against, the developing, trying, and testing of moral fiber. "The very imperfection of the world [is] an argument pointing to the theistic conclusion." There remains yet a gap between the claim that the universe works toward a moral purpose and the full claim that God exists: Sorley seeks to fill this gap by arguing that belief in God is presupposed by belief in an objective and "eternally valid" morality. If the moral law is eternally valid, and valid whether we recognize it or not, "how could this eternal validity stand alone, not embodied in matter and neither seen nor realized by finite minds, unless there were an eternal mind whose thought and will were therein expressed?"

One can readily agree that the world as we experience it is better adapted to be a vale of soul-making than a hedonistic holiday camp. Yet there are difficulties about even the soul-making view. Some human suffering (the unmerited suffering of young children, for instance) cannot always be treated plausibly as developing moral fiber, or as realizing any other moral value. The natural environment can figure as the destroyer of moral personality as well as its preserver and nourisher. Sorley's further argument, from the validity of the law to an eternal mind, surely contains a confusion of the logical and the psychological. Questions about validity and about truth are logically independent of questions about the propositions that are actually entertained in someone's mind. Whether or not there exists a person who says (or thinks) p, has no bearing on the truth of p or, if p is a moral principle, upon its bindingness or validity in the relevant sense.

A. E. Taylor saw the moral life not as a mere conforming to given static principles and rules but as directing the moral agent along certain paths of self-development. There is development within the moral ideal: "We discover tomorrow that today's ideal 'had more in it' than we had supposed." The goal transforms itself as we approach it. The further we pursue it, the less able we become to conceive the human good in purely this-world, secular terms. There is development also within our awareness of time. Purposeful, valuable activity produces an extension of our "conscious present"; it delivers us from the dullness of "one thing after another." The limiting case in this development would be well expressed by Boethius's account of eternity"the complete and simultaneous fruition of a life without bounds."

"We may argue," Taylor then claimed, "from the existence of a function to the reality of an environment in which the function can find adequate exercise." But no view of the world, short of theism, can guarantee the completion of these directions of development that Taylor has described.

Whatever is decided about the validity of the argument as an argument, Taylor's The Faith of a Moralist is a lastingly impressive and eloquent account of a religiously oriented morality. On validity, however, some searching criticisms were made by C. D. Broad in his review of Taylor's work published in Mind (1931). Taylor had taken as his premises certain moral judgments and certain trends of development in our experience of value. He then had asked what these entailed; whatever they entailed was to be added to our true beliefs about the universe. Broad argued that, in order to avoid a vicious circle, we must be sure that our premises do not already covertly assume the theistic conclusion. We must know that we have these duties and aspirations without already presupposing God and immortality. Only in this way could the existence of God and immortality be the conclusion of our argument. It is hard to be sure that these value judgments and aspirations are not the consequence of a prior theism. And a further point must be added: Only such a previously held theism, or cryptotheism, could entitle us to argue, with Taylor, "from the existence of a function to the reality of an environment in which [it has] adequate exercise." (Or, if this is true by definition of function, only such a theism can justify calling those value pursuits "functions.") Once again it might be added that the directions of moral development, although unrealizable in toto, could still be taken as targets for ever-nearer approximation. That they can be taken in this way, however, tells against Taylor's argument, for he wished to deny that we can be morally serious about these unless complete realization is possible.

Moral theories dominant in the mid-twentieth century did not tend to lead naturally into moral arguments for God. In Britain and the United States, at any rate, they were characteristically this-worldly. But exceptions do occur. Austin Farrer offered, if not a moral argument, then certainly a moral "persuasion" toward theism in the first chapter of Faith and Logic, "A Starting-Point for the Philosophical Examination of Theological Belief." His argument is that we are incontestably under an obligation to love our neighborthat is, to hold him in highest regard; and that this is not impossible if our neighbor is a lovable person. If our neighbor occasionally lapses from lovability and from goodness, we may still manage to love his "normal" self, although it is temporarily obscured. If, however, he lapses chronically and grossly, how are we to love him? To love what he might be is now to love a fiction only; but it is persons, not fictions, that we ought to love. Farrer claimed Christianity provides a uniquely helpful way in which we can see the unlovable neighbor, admit his deficiencies, and yet succeed in loving him. In praying for and about our neighbor, we bring our view of him into relation with God's actionhis action in creating our neighbor and his constant and costly redemptive action on our neighbor's behalf. Farrer insisted that, if these reflections help to give plausibility and impressiveness to the Christian view itself, they are not to be taken as a refurbishing of strong Kantian claims to establish God's existence.

Farrer appears to have assessed the capacity of this type of argument far more realistically than those who used it before him. If we judge that certain attitudes or evaluations are supremely worth realizingfor example, that "people ought to be held in the utmost regard"then it is reasonable, even mandatory, to take up whatever stance will best further our task of realizing them. In our present example, we are required to meditate upon those reflections that uniquely put our neighbor in a regard-furthering light. Of course, provisos must be added. There must, for instance, be no logical incoherence in the description of the stance or of the context that furthers our neighborly love; otherwise, what we called the light or the stance might be in fact only a fugitive, quasi-aesthetic movement of feeling. To provide a point of entry to traditional Christianity, the stance must be capable of being expressed in a set of meaningful affirmations about reality. Another obvious proviso is that our premises must be sound. We must in fact be under obligation to hold our neighbor in highest regard, and all non-Christian ways of seeing our neighbor must be less helpful than the Christian way. It is particularly upon the second of these premises that, in a fuller discussion, argument necessarily would concentrate.

See also Broad, Charlie Dunbar; Ethics, History of; Hume, David; Immortality; Kant, Immanuel; Popular Arguments for the Existence of God; Presupposition; Sorley, William Ritchie; Taylor, Alfred Edward.


The chief sources for moral arguments to God are the following works of Kant: Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (Riga: J. F. Hartknoch, 1788), translated by T. K. Abbott (London and Dublin, 1879) and by L. W. Beck (Chicago, 1949), and Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (Königsberg: Bey Friedrich Nicolovius, 1794), translated by T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson as Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper, 1960).

Post-Kantian works in which moral arguments to God play an important part are Austin Farrer, "A Starting-Point for the Philosophical Examination of Theological Belief," in Faith and Logic edited by B. G. Mitchell (New York, 1957); John Henry Newman, A Grammar of Assent (London, 1901), especially pp. 109110; Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907), and God and Man (Oxford, 1930); W. R. Sorley, Moral Values and the Idea of God (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1918); and A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London: Macmillan, 1930), reviewed by C. D. Broad in Mind 40 (1931): 364375.

Among contemporary studies of the Kantian argument are the following: H. P. Owen, The Moral Argument for Christian Theism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1965); G. A. Schrader, "Kant's Presumed Repudiation of the 'Moral Argument' in the Opus Postumum," in Philosophy 26 (1951): 228241; John R. Silber, "Kant's Conception of the Highest Good as Immanent and Transcendent," in Philosophical Review 68 (1959): 469ff.; and W. H. Walsh, "Kant's Moral Theology," in Proceedings of the British Academy 49 (1963): 263289.

Ronald W. Hepburn (1967)

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Moral Arguments for the Existence of God

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