Axiological Arguments from Morals and Values

The arguments from morals and values make up what are known as the axiological arguments (axios = value). According to the Argument from Values, there are universal human values and ideals — things like goodness, beauty, truth, justice, etc. (and The American Way, if you are a member of the Christian Right). These values are not simply experienced subjectively but are really exist and are creations of God.

This argument is easy to rebut because it is more assertion than argument. No matter how common or popular our values are, it is a logical fallacy to use that fact to conclude that the concepts are more than human creations. Perhaps that is why more time and energy is invested in promoting the Moral Argument.

What is the Moral Argument?

According to the Moral Argument, there is a universal human “moral conscience” which suggests basic human similarities. Theists using the Moral Argument assert that the existence of a universal “moral conscience” can only be explained by the existence of a god who created us (thus also touching on the Design and Teleological Arguments). John Henry Newman writes in his book The Grammar of Assent:

”The wicked flees, when no one pursueth;” then why does he flee? whence his terror? who is it that sees in solitude, in darkness, the hidden chambers of his heart? If the cause of these emotions does not belong to this visible world, the Object to which his perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine; and thus the phenomena of Conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive, and is the creative principle of religion, as the Moral Sense is the principle of ethics.

It is not true that all humans have a moral conscience — some are, for example, diagnosed without it and are labeled sociopaths or psychopaths. They appear to be at least somewhat aberrant, and so it could be granted that some sort of moral conscience is universal among healthy humans. This does not mean, though, that the existence of a moral god is the best explanation.

How Did Our Moral Conscience Come About?

It can be argued, for example, that our moral conscience was evolutionarily selected for, especially in light of animal behavior which is suggestive of a rudimentary “moral conscience.” Chimpanzees exhibit what appears to be fear and shame when they do something that violates the rules of their group. Should we conclude that chimpanzees fear God? Or is it more likely that such feelings are natural in social animals?

Another popular version of the Moral Argument, though not common with professional theologians, is the idea that if people did not believe in a god they would not have any reason to be moral. This does not make the existence of a god more probable but it is supposed to offer a practical reason to believe in God.

The factual premise that better morality is a consequence of theism is doubtful at best. There is no good evidence for it and abundant evidence to the contrary: that theism is irrelevant to morality at best. There is no data that atheists commit more violent crimes than do theists and countries with more theists do not have higher crime rates than countries where the population is more atheistic. Even if it were true that theism made one more moral, that is no reason to actually think that a god more likely exists than not.

The mere fact that a belief is useful on practical grounds has no bearing on it being factual.o not have higher crime rates than countries where the population is more atheistic. Even if it were true that theism made one more moral, that is no reason to actually think that a god more likely exists than not. The mere fact that a belief is useful on practical grounds has no bearing on it being factual.

Objective Morals and Values

A more sophisticated version is the idea that the existence of a god is the only explanation for objective morals and values. Thus atheists, even if they do not realize it, by denying a god also deny objective morality. Hastings Rashdall writes:

  • On a non-theistic view of the Universe...the moral law cannot well be thought of as having any actual existence. The objective validity of the moral law can indeed be and no doubt is asserted, believed in and acted upon without reference to any theological creed; but it cannot be defended or fully justified without the presupposition of Theism.

    Even some influential atheists like J. L. Mackie have agreed that if moral laws or ethical properties were objective facts then this would be a puzzling occurrence which would require a supernatural explanation. This version of the Moral Argument can be rejected on a number of points.

    First, it has not been shown that ethical statements can only be objective if you presume theism. There have been a number of efforts to create naturalistic theories of ethics which in no way rely upon gods. Second, it has not been shown that moral laws or ethical properties are absolute and objective. Maybe they are, but this cannot simply be assumed without argument. Third, what if morals aren’t absolute and objective? This would not automatically mean we will or should descend into moral anarchy as a result. Once again, we have what is at best a practical reason to believe in a god regardless of the actual truth value of theism.