An Abductive Moral Argument for Theism

Introduction

The topic of morality is a precarious one. It is often invoked in cultural or political arenas without any pushback as to what morality is or where its foundations are rooted in. “Sometimes it is connected and dispensed with superstition, and other times with imperialism and imposition.”[1]  Celebrities and politicians ignorantly claim that something is either moral or immoral with no accountability as to what that means. This begs the question as to what morality is and how does humanity know where morals originate.

Moral argumentation is both philosophical and theological, it is unwise to have one without the other. This essay will hypothesize several abductive moral arguments in favor of theism and Christianity as a better explanation for the universal presence of a sense of moral obligations than naturalistic or secular theories; this will include moral facts, knowledge, rationality, and transformation.  In addition, this author will refute key objections to the moral transformation argument in favor of theism. These claims will advocate the given all the evidence the best conclusion for a morality standard is, and must, be the biblical text and all that entails.  

Definitions Matter

Whether debating, defending, or arguing a subject matter it is always best to first definitively identify and demarcate what that subject is and what it means considering the discussion. What is morality? “The system of rules that ideally should govern human behavior with respect to right and wrong, good and evil.”[2] The system of rules is where the bulk of this essay will advocate its point but the distinction between good and evil is important to note. For the sake of the topic, good and evil and right and wrong will be synonymous. This essay will not attempt to defend the moral arguments for various types of evil or wrongs and how they play into the greater society. Such opinions are best left to theodicy and do not matter in the realm of moral genesis.

Therefore, the question is laid to bear: Can morality exist in the absence of a divine creator (ruler)? This constitutes the moral argument and undergirds the foundation for this author’s thesis. “It is, as Kant also felt, when we enter the moral sphere that immortality, or the continued existence of the soul, becomes a practical certainty to the earnest mind. With moral personality is bound up the idea of moral law and moral responsibility; this, in turn, necessitates the thought of the world as a moral system, and of God as moral Ruler.”[3] Therefore, morality without a divine morally good God is “cut-flower” morality that has no roots in ethical virtue and cannot explain away Christianity.

In opposition to this position stands agnosticism and atheism which fall into the naturalistic camp, or materialism. “Naturalism is the view that the physical world is all there is, and behind it is no ultimate pattern or plan or purpose.”[4] It is from this worldview that this author’s thesis will compare, contrast, and oppose.

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Moral Facts

Moral facts appeal to what humanity, philosophy, theology, etc. considers universal truths that people can agree on such as good and evil, right, and wrong. This also brings up a debate on what good is, evil is, right is, wrong is. Most people cannot come to agreeance on these issues, but most people do agree that their efficacy in the realm of morality should be discussed. Doug Powell explains further: “Morals are not opinions. They are not personal, private decisions, and they are not descriptions of behavior. They are prescriptions for behavior and motive that have the force of a command. They contain a sense of obligation and oughtness that is universal, authoritative, and outweighs considerations of culture, time, and place.”[5]This author posits that without theism, particularly Christianity, no such demarcation of morality can be made without God.

C.S. Lewis referred to this moral fact of morality as a universal moral law that mankind, in its historical totality acknowledged; “when the older called the law of right and wrong ‘the Law of Nature,’ they really meant the Law of Human Nature.”[6] The notion he advocates is just as humans recognize the laws of mathematics, biology, and science; humanity also is governed by a set of moral facts, or laws, that govern ethics and human interaction. Lewis proposes that everyone can recognize this truth and ultimately this leads to a theist conclusion to validate it.

Norman Geisler and Frank Turek expand this notion of moral truths with a more succinct analysis of how these moral truths permeate society. In their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist they give a list of what the moral law looks like:

  1. The Moral Law is undeniable.
  2. We know it by our reactions.
  3. It is the basis of human rights.
  4. It is the unchanging standard of justice.
  5. It defines a real difference between moral positions (e.g., Mother Teresa vs. Hitler).
  6. Since we know what is absolutely wrong, there must be an absolute standard of rightness.
  7. The Moral Law is the grounds for political and social dissent.
  8. If there is no Moral Law, then we would not make excuses for violating it.[7]

Only Christianity rightly explains, not only the existence of moral facts but puts forth the best argument for how to meander through the conundrums of moral depravity. Without a God, nothing is moral or immoral, it is just opinion.

Opposition to this position is the subjectivism argument which would state that perception is reality; that there are no objective moral facts or duties. Matt Dillahunty argues: “There is nothing about the universe that necessitates that we need to stay alive or be good to one another, we have come to agree on some of these ideas that lead us to believe in things like guilt, being good to others, doing things in our own self-interest.”[8] He advocates that all objective moral values and duties begin with the subjective will. At one point in a conversation about abductive moral arguments, Matt uses the example of fidelity to one wife or husband. He then goes on to undermine guilt in covenant relationship by explaining how his wife and he have an open marriage and that if he decided to sleep with other women, he would not feel the guilt of any kind whereas the average person would. His point is to prove that objective morality is subjective morality.

What Matt misunderstands is that he is making a case for perversion. His argument is in favor of sin, not an abdication of sin. What he is postulating is the very reason why moral facts exist. If no moral fact existed, fidelity to one’s spouse would never be in question. He thinks his witticism is a semantical triumph when what he really does is to advocate in favor of the need for objective moral values and duties. Moreover, the objection that there is no objective morality always finds itself in a subjective view of what is morally objective. “Moral duties impose obligations that need to be obeyed even if they don’t always correspond with our cares and interests. They justify or require praise and blame for actions committed or omitted, and they require a purity of motivation.”[9] As in the case of Matt, adultery is morally wrong (in some cases) but murdering someone might be. What the naturalist has in his/her escape from objective moral facts, he/she finds themselves down a rabbit hole of is and oughts that cannot be attenable in a global healthy society. Without a God determining what is and what is not morally right, nothing is morally right.

Moral Epistemology

The concept of moral epistemology is the logical extension of moral facts, if they do exist then how does humanity know what is moral and what is amoral. Without a God to show humans how what justified morality is, no such conclusions can be made. Humanity only knows what is moral because God commands it. Doug Powell writes: “If morality can’t be based on descriptions of the world, neither can it be derived from reason. Reason helps us recognize contradictions, but not the morality of the propositions.”[10] Reason cannot be the basis for morality any more than an ought can be concluded from an is.

Early philosophy often dealt heavily with this issue. “Plato thought that nobody would ever knowingly choose the bad, that if we choose to do something, it shows that we think the choice is good.”[11] This became popularized by the Euthyphro Dilemma named after a character in one of Plato’s dialogues. The essence of this quandary is whether something is good because the Gods command it or do the Gods will it because it is good. The dilemma posits a dichotomy of what goodness is, either arbitrary command given by God which could call any act good, or if goodness exists independently as Plato believed. This is often refuted by the Divine Command theory but often does a poor job at it.

The best answer to this problem of the goodness of God or arbitrary fiat is best explained by William Lane Craig in favor of a theistic God: “Moral values are not independent of God because God’s own Character defines what is good. God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so on. His nature is the moral standard defining good and bad. His commands necessarily reflect His moral nature.”[12] What Craig is supporting is that moral knowledge is the result of creation, it cannot stand independently of it. Because God created all there is, nothing can be independent of the created order, and because God is the standard of goodness, something is good only because it flows from the created order of God’s moral character. C. Stephen Evans further explains: “God is the basis of our knowledge of morality. If there is a God, this second claim will doubtless be true in some sense, because if humans are created by God, all their knowledge must be derived from cognitive capacities God has given them. (And if theism is false, the claim will just as obviously be false.)”[13]  Moral epistemology can only be grounded in theistic worldviews which posits a source of that morality that can only be justified as a belief system from opinion.

Moral Transformation

Moral transformation is the purpose of most evangelism. The goal is not just salvation but true spiritual and moral transformation; “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).[14] A naturalist worldview cannot offer the same transformative qualities to humanity without the arbitrary subjective opinions of what it takes to be a morally good person. True transformation can only be spiritual in nature and conformity toward ethical goodness can only be quantified theologically.

If morality is subjective, as naturalism demands, then the transformation from a bad person to a good person, or even a good person to a better person, is not rational. Good and bad are subjective and therefore do not exist. Transformation is not possible without a theistic worldview that posits the standard of goodness. Baggett and Walls insist: “As long as ‘being moral’ is treated in a merely comparative sense, atheists and agnostics of various stripes are well within their rights to insist that, relative to plenty of professing theists, they are quite moral indeed.”[15] This is a misstatement which could not be quantified without the world “relative,” only that world holds the validity of that sentence. The question is what is relative? If naturalists hold their morality relative to theistic morality the case for the standard is made.

If a secularist proposes that he/she is morally equivalent to Christians, then he/she is concluding that theistic morality is the standard. Otherwise, one could argue what is the basis on which he/she is transforming to? The Christian is being transformed into the likeness of Christ, which is humility, patience, love, kindness but the atheist could wish to be transformed into authoritative leadership that often describes successful traits as proud, persistent, shrewdness, pragmatic, assertive. Each person is being transformed into something; theism has a better explanation of why that transformation would be morally good than a secularist one that conflates what it means to be successful.

The Bible stipulates that no one is good (Romans 3:12) and all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). This is a theological argument and not a philosophical one, but it nonetheless has the same conclusions that this author is advocating. Without Christianity, no one can determine positive transformation. A further objection will be addressed later in that treatise on moral transformation.

Moral Rationality

The last of the moral imperatives are moral rationality, which is a rational constraint that morality and well-being ultimately need to cohere. Moral rationality deals with the relationship between morality and personal self-interest. “In particular, can anyone have a moral obligation to act against their ultimate self-interest? Can morality make rational sense if it makes such demands?”[16] It is not only rational to believe that holiness and reason lead to moral goodness but attempting to achieve any sense of holiness, or moral goodness, without a theistic worldview is irrational.

 This is a tricky stance because it seems to be at odds with both naturalists (secularists, atheists, agnostics) and many from the Christian right, particularly the uneducated Christian fundamentalist. It is often categorized as a dualistic view, much like science and religion, that faith and reason, logic, and rationality have no place in modern theology. “This view, called fideism, from the Latin word fides, which means “faith,” has been held by a number of noted Christian thinkers, and although it is the minority position, it is a common stance among many believers today who have adopted the postmodern mindset that finds rational arguments to be of dubious value.”[17] Unfortunately, believers who argue for rationality and theism often have to fight people within their faith because their fear of intellectualism permeates many denominations. This does not, however, lend any validity to an argument against moral rationality. The Christians who wish it to be out of theology and the secularist who argue against theistic moral rationality have the same point of contention: both misunderstand rationality.

Rationality is often equated to reason and logic; “an explanation of controlling principles of opinion, belief, practice, or phenomena.”[18] In this sense, no one could claim that theistic positions or either irrational or without logic and reason, by its definition would not preclude any instance where faith and reason should not be coherent. It is just another position that examines truth, much like philosophy. Herein lies the issue; “in theology the term rationalism often designates a position that subordinate’s revelation to human reason or rules out revelation as a source of knowledge altogether.”[19] This is where the Christian misunderstands rationality, and the secularist hijacks the definition. “Among unbelievers, the view that faith and reason are at odds typically reflects an altogether different purpose, namely, to underscore the claim that faith is utterly irrational, a claim that has received fresh impetus from the recent popular books trumpeting atheism.”[20]

The claim that something is irrational is itself, an irrational statement of opinion. It cannot be deemed reasonable or unreasonable to conclude that belief systems are rational without the Logos. Much like earlier arguments for subjectivism, relativism, and now rationalism, opinion is often conflated with truth and no such truth can be claimed without the truth giver or an all-knowing, all-powerful God who defines truth (rationality).

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Objections to Moral Transformation

This author would like to circle back to an important topic of moral transformation. As aforementioned, transformation is the by-product of a regenerate person; someone born anew in the spirit of Jesus Christ and now a new follower of the Lord. This is the root of Christianity and needs further refutation. The best argumentation against theism is that one needs not Christianity, or God for that matter, to become a better person or transform into a morally better person.

Atheist activist Matt Dillahunty objects to moral transformation in lieu of a divine source by giving an example of addiction recovery where he states that “we know that people live can be transformed absent any religious intervention just by gaining a better understanding of whatever they are doing is not in their best interest.”[21] What Dillahunty is saying is that as long as it is in the best interest of a specific person, one could be shown to transform without divine revelation; man does not need a god to become a better man. This, on the surface, is a good argument for moral transformation. The problem is that is short-sighted and does not take the various transformative circumstances that modernity is now supplying. Take his example of addiction, he is superimposing harsh drug addiction without acknowledging the countless American’s addicted to opioids whose addiction is not only in opposition to his theory but supported by people of medical authority. One could not be persuaded into moral transformation if society deems their current status as morally sound.

 In addition, take for example the transgender phenomenon in our society, people are not only emotionally and spiritually transforming from man to woman or woman to man, but physical alterations are accompanying this transformation at an irreversible cost. Not only are physicians and politicians speaking in favor of such transformation and any mention of the religious moral issue is viewed as bigotry and prejudice. In such a society, no such argument for transformation without a standard could be made without recognizing the problem with subjective morality and the arbitrariness of ethical opinion. The best way to escape this moral chaos concerning transformation is to recognize that God is the best standard of moral righteousness.

 Synthesis and Deductions

All arguments considered, theism, in particular Christianity makes for the best explanation of issues arising out of morality, ethics, and virtue. In the Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis notes:

that what is common to Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental conceptions of the moral life ‘is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind the universe is and the kind of things we are.’ When we recognize such truths, we “recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.[22]

From the recognition of moral facts and the truth of obligation and duties, Christians now understand that having moral faith is more than a simple belief system, but that God guarantees that moral obligation and happiness can co-exist.[23] One does not have to sacrifice holiness and pleasure or contentment. The rational conclusions of seeking morality and God are synonymous within the Christian faith and disciples of Jesus Christ should embrace moral knowledge and seek moral transformation as a rational conclusion of the moral question. Doug Powell concludes:

Because morals are universal and transcend individuals, societies, and time, the source must be universal and transcendent. Since morals are authoritative, they must come from an authority, and authority can only be held by a person. Finally, this person must have the power to impose his moral will on us. This person must also be able to provide us with an ability to know their moral will through intuition. Thus, morals come from a transcendent person who has the power and authority to impose a moral law on us. And we call this person God.[24]

The best explanation for all the moral questions cannot be answered without the acknowledgment of the source of morality, that source cannot be human, nor can it be demarcated by human reason or logic. One cannot create laws about oneself that transcend oneself.

Conclusion

In conclusion, taking into consideration moral facts, knowledge, transformation, and rationality, the best assumption that can be made for the existence of morality is a theistic worldview that acknowledges Jesus Christ as the ultimate Logos, or truth, and source of all moral goodness. “Kant argues for the moral necessity of postulating the existence of God, for only the existence of God can assure happiness that corresponds with moral virtue.”[25] This author agrees and can see the benefit of making abductive moral arguments by analyzing a preponderance of postulates and making the best-foregone summations.

 

Bibliography

Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. Good God: the Theistic Foundations of Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Baggett, David, and Matt Dilahunty. “Matt Dillahunty, David Baggett Discuss an Abductive Moral Argument.” Www.moralapologetics.com. Address, 2018. https://www.moralapologetics.com/wordpress/2018/3/26/matt-dillahunty-david-baggett-discuss-an-abductive-moral-argument#:~:text=In%20particular%2C%20the%20abductive%20argument%20requires%20substantive%20interaction,of%20certain%20facts%20from%20a%20range%20of%20hypotheses.

Craig, William Lane. On Guard Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs, CO: Cook, 2010.

Evans, C. Stephen. God and Moral Obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Evans, C. Stephen. Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Geisler, Norman L., and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity: The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality. Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1985.

Lewis, C. S. “The Abolition of Man.” VitalSource Bookshelf Online. Liberty University, 2009. https://libertyonline.vitalsource.com/#/books/9780061949135/cfi/6/16!/4/4/172@0:33.9.

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003.

Orr, James, ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Chicago, IL: Howard-Severance Company, 1915.

Powell, Doug. Holman Quick Source Guide to Christian Apologetics. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2014.

Footnotes:

[1] David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1.

[2] C. Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 77.

[3] James Orr, “Immortal, Immortality,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 1460.

[4] David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: the Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 10.

[5] Doug Powell, Holman Quick Source Guide to Christian Apologetics (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2006), 82.

[6] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1985), 4.

[7] Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 172.

[8] David Baggett and Matt Dilahunty, (2018), https://www.moralapologetics.com/wordpress/2018/3/26/matt-dillahunty-david-baggett-discuss-an-abductive-moral-argument#:~:text=In%20particular%2C%20the%20abductive%20argument%20requires%20substantive%20interaction,of%20certain%20facts%20from%20a%20range%20of%20hypotheses.

[9] David Baggett, Good God, 16.

[10] Doug Powell, Holman Quick Source,, 82.

[11] David Baggett, Good God, 14.

[12] William Lane Craig, On Guard Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook, 2010), 136.

[13] C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1.

[14] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version.

[15] David Baggett, God and Cosmos, 215.

[16] David Baggett, God and Cosmos, 255.

[17] David Baggett, Good God, 7.

[18] Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).

[19] C. Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics, 99.

[20] David Baggett, Good God, 7.

[21] David Baggett and Matt Dilahunty, (2018), https://www.moralapologetics.com/wordpress/2018/3/26/matt-dillahunty-david-baggett-discuss-an-abductive-moral-argument#:~:text=In%20particular%2C%20the%20abductive%20argument%20requires%20substantive%20interaction,of%20certain%20facts%20from%20a%20range%20of%20hypotheses.

[22] David Baggett, God and Cosmos, 247.

[23] Ibid, 265.

[24] Doug Powell, Holman Quick Source, 88.

[25] David Baggett, God and Cosmos, 264.

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