In this episode Trent explores a neglected version of the moral argument for God’s existence that focuses on the best explanation for human dignity and human equality.
Welcome to the Council of Trent Podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.
Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Council of Trent podcast. I’m your host, Catholic Answers’ apologist and speaker, Trent Horn. And today I want to talk about a neglected argument for the existence of God. It’s one that’s been rolling around in my head for several years now, and I think if some work was put into it and it was made robust, it could be a very effective argument as showing that in all good God exists, and you could do so in a way that at least initially when you present the argument wouldn’t require a lot of complex arguments. It’s something that I think would be very intuitive to people. And it definitely has seemed intuitive to me, especially since this argument is kind of parallel to the pro-life work that I’ve been doing for nearly 20 years.
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All right, so what is this argument? The argument I want to share with you today, this is just a brief sketch by the way, not a really sophisticated, rigorous presentation of it, because I’m still exploring the argument. But I’m intrigued. I’m fascinated. And I hope you will be too. It is a very into the moral argument for God’s existence. Now, the moral argument has gotten a bad rap in philosophy of religion. Most philosophers, either Christian or atheist, when you ask them what are the strongest arguments for God’s existence, most of them don’t present the moral argument.
Here’s what’s interesting, Philosophers are not as big a fan of this argument, but lay people really respond to it well. CS Lewis used a variant of the moral argument in his book, Mere Christianity, and that was back in 1952. So in the mid 20th century, the argument that was all the rage, and really is still probably the most popular one among philosophers, is the contingency argument for God’s existence. And it’s a very powerful argument. If something doesn’t have to exist, we wonder why does it exist at all? So there has to be something that can’t fail to exist. The biggest drawback though for the contingency argument is that when you try to explain it to the average person, their eyes really glaze over really fast when you talk about contingent and necessary things. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around it.
And that may be why Lewis didn’t use those kinds of arguments in Mere Christianity. He used a moral argument, saying that we recognize there are moral rules that transcend people, time, place, and culture. And so from there, there must be some moral rule or law giver that transcends time, place, and culture. And so that would be the moral argument.
However, a lot of philosophers of religion think that you could get a moral system, you could have moral realism, they make these arguments, and I believe the arguments can be countered, but there’s a lot of work that has to be put into countering their claims that you can have moral realism, you could have these objective moral rules, without God. And in fact, many atheists will say, “I’m not moved by that argument.” They’ll say, “I just know that suffering is bad and you should alleviate suffering. I don’t need God. We don’t need God as a foundation of this belief. It’s some kind of basic belief. You don’t need God to apprehend these basic moral truths.” And so that’s why the moral argument hasn’t gotten as much support among philosophers of religion. And there’s a lot of atheists who will say, “You can have morality without God.”
And I agree, you can be a moral person without God, but whether you can have a moral foundation, a series of facts that tell you what ought to be rather than what merely is, I don’t think you can have that in an atheistic universe. But there’s a lot of debate over the issue.
However, what if instead of defending morality in general, like good and evil, right and wrong, objective moral values and duties, I think the most successful moral arguments to the existence of God are going to focus on very particular features of morality that we’re strongly inclined to believe in, but which in principle cannot be explained naturally. And so one of those features I would say is human dignity. There’s different ways I could describe it. Human dignity would be one of them. Human exceptionalism is another way to describe it. The idea that humans have particular value merely in virtue of being human. Just because they belong to the human species, they have a unique, intrinsic value no other thing in the universe has. And moreso they possess this dignity, this value, equally, it is possessed equally among human beings. Like when we say in the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
So the thesis, we call it the human exceptionalism thesis, that humans, and only humans, compared to other animals and creatures that we are aware of, have this special dignity. And because of it, they have special things like a right to life. They cannot be treated merely as objects, they’re persons, and they possess these basic rights equally. They have equal dignity, equal rights, and they possess it intrinsically, merely because they are human and not because of the kind of functional ability they have.
Even a profoundly disabled human being, a pig may be smarter, more cognitively aware, than a profoundly disabled human being or an infant. Yet our human dignity, human exceptionalism, demands that we treat human beings, the disabled and infant human beings, better than we would treat a pig. When we make a choice and we have to sacrifice either a pig’s welfare or a human infant or a disabled human’s welfare, we don’t sacrifice human welfare for the pig, we sacrifice the pig welfare for the human being.
But why is that the case? So I would go to college campuses and I would defend the pro-life position and eventually I would get down to this basement level of ethics with people. I would say, “Look, the unborn human beings, they have a right to life. All human beings are equal and have a right to life. They should be protected.” And people will say, “Well, why should I think human beings have a right to life? Why think that human life matters in comparison to other lives, for example.” Some of them will say, “Maybe we shouldn’t value human beings.” Or they’ll say that that speciesist, like a racist says that a certain race matters because they belong to that race, and racism is an evil, is speciesism a similar evil bigotry where I prefer my species to other species, but all species are morally equal?
Well, I think that’s wrong. And I think many other people would agree. It’s just painfully obvious that it’s wrong. Yet atheistic ethics have a very difficult time being able to overcome the objection of speciesism. You think about Sam Harris for example, in his book, The Moral Landscape, where he says, “Science can prove morality. You don’t need God to explain morality, because morality is just a science and it is the science of improving the wellbeing of conscious creatures.” And that’s the thing, many atheists will say, “We don’t need the moral argument for God. It’s just obvious morality is about improving the flourishing of conscious creatures.” But notice they don’t say human beings.
Now, I agree, morality does involve non-human animals. They’re what we call moral patients. That torturing an animal for fun is wrong. And that’s different than pulling up a flower bed, pulling up flowers out in the wilderness just for fun. I mean, maybe it’s wrong in a very minimal sense, but not because of what it does to the flowers, maybe because other human beings would not enjoy that beautiful part of nature, for example.
Honestly, throughout most of philosophical history, the wrongness of harming non-humans is primarily about what it does, how it disfigures the human person and makes them less empathetic and more prone to violence, things like that. But I agree that even if a pig, or even if an animal is not a human being, you shouldn’t torture them just for fun, for example. They have feelings, we ought to empathize with them. But it doesn’t mean that I treat them as having the same value as human beings. And so it ultimately comes back to this question, why do human beings, why do they have this special value in comparison to other conscious creatures?
When I would debate abortion on college campuses, some people would say, “You’re just arguing religion.” I would say, “No, I’m not arguing religion. It’s wrong to kill innocent human beings, the unborn are innocent human beings, so it’s wrong to kill them.” And they would say, “Well, that’s a religious belief, it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings.” I would say, “Well, maybe. But most people agree that it’s true.”
And I would further say, “All human beings have equal value.” And they would say, “Well, how do you know that?” They would say, “That’s religious, isn’t it?” And sometimes when I was in these discussions, I would say, “Whether or not it’s religious, you probably believe it. So regardless of what makes it true or not, just assume it’s true and move on with the argument.”
I was so focused on trying to prove abortion was wrong, I would have these moral positions. It’s wrong to directly kill innocent human beings. All human beings have equal moral worth. And I would say, “Let’s just set aside the question of what makes those things true. Because you and I agree that they’re true, but for different reasons.”
But now I’m at the point to say, “Why are these positions true?” And I don’t think that atheistic explanations for human value and exceptionalism work, rather what makes the most sense of why human beings have this particular kind of value would be the fact that they stand in special relationship with God, who is an ultimate source of value.
I’ve noticed this in my previous interactions. One was with Alex O’Connor. So when I was dialoging with Alex O’Connor about the wrongness of killing, he wanted to say that human beings, we treat them better than other non-human animals, but he couldn’t quite justify why that was the case. And for Alex, one of his objections was that, “Well, we can’t say human beings have special value and other animals don’t. Because when we look in the evolutionary timeline, it’s really hard to find the moment, ah, see, there’s the identifiable moment in biology when a special human being came into existence, because it’s always slight genetic variations along the way. Even if you’re a Catholic and you don’t believe in evolution, the church allows us to believe that our bodies evolved over time, even if our soul was immediately given to our first parents however many thousands of years ago. And so if you can’t draw a line between humans and non-human animals in an evolutionary history, then humans do not have special value. And you can’t draw a line, at least biologically, therefore, humans don’t owe special value.”
Now, I can reverse this argument. If A, then B, A therefore B, that’s Alex’s argument. In philosophy, you can reverse this kind of argument. If A then B, not B, therefore not A. So the argument was, if you can’t draw a line between humans and nonhuman evolutionarily, then humans don’t have special value. That’s B. But humans do have special value. We do know human exceptionalism is true. We do know that a human infant or a profoundly disabled human being has more intrinsic value than even a very cognitively aware non-human animal. So human beings do have special value, which means we can draw a line between humans and non-human animals. We may not be able to draw the line biologically. So therefore, the only explanation is that line must have been drawn theologically from a source of value beyond the material world. So now you have the background. Here’s how Alex and I hashed it out in our discussion.
The problem I have with saying that human beings just have a categorical difference in moral treatment is that on this line of resurrected evolutionary trajectory, there seems to be no place at which you could non-arbitrarily draw that line. I mean, if you want to say that human beings have moral worth by virtue of being human, such that a human being born 100,000 years ago, it has these rights, has a right to life, even if they weren’t recognized in the situations they were living in.
But maybe a sub hominid or an ape does not. Where is the clear –
But of course there’s no point at which a sub hominid gave birth to a hominid. That never happened. And so on my view that this is a developmental thing, it’s like properties of a human being that give it moral worth. This seems to make perfect sense. This seems to be consistent. But to say that there’s something about being a human requires putting a boundary around human beings, which is easy to do now, because other human beings have gone extinct and we’re quite different from our closest ancestors, but in principle, if you resurrect the evolutionary hierarchy, there’s nowhere to draw that line.
I think maybe we’ll have to cap our discussion with this, that for me then this may ultimately go back that there is no strict biological explanation for why particular hominids have value. It may not be a biological explanation, it may be a theological explanation.
It’d have to be, right?
I would say that it has to be. And so for me, that would actually not be a weakness of my position in ethics. I would say that it actually provides evidence for the particular Christian theism that I hold, in that if we’re so dead set on this intrinsic human value, if it can only be explained theologically, that to me would give good evidence for God.
But you and I will have to chat about that more tonight.
That’s more man’s modus ponens being another man’s modus tollens.
That’s exactly what’s going on here. I would say that since there’s kind of nowhere to draw this line non-theologically, and the theology is wrong, therefore there’s nowhere to draw the line, you would say that since there’s nowhere to draw this line non-theologically, but we do need to draw the line, therefore the theology is correct.
Theology is correct. And here’s something else interesting that I came across. I was rereading a defense of abortion by David Boonin, and this is probably one of the most sophisticated defenses of abortion from a pro-choice philosopher that I’ve ever read. And he goes over different arguments for the pro-life position and he has one called The Sanctity of Human Life argument. And he critiques these different arguments. And it goes like this.
“The fetus is a human life from the moment of its conception. Every human life is sacred. If the life of an individual is sacred, then the individual has a right to life. Therefore the fetus has a right to life from the moment of its conception.” And he goes forward, and what he finds wrong with this argument, he actually says the argument itself works just fine, he says that this argument is plainly valid. And he says, “It is not difficult to see how an argument appealing to a claim about sanctity in the first of these senses, the religious sense …” he contrasts secular and religious sanctity, “Might prove satisfactory.” He writes, “If one believes that God stands in a special relation to every human being from the moment of conception, then this might provide firm support for the conclusion that each life has a sort of value that makes ending it morally impermissible.”
Now, Boonin does say that this argument doesn’t work. He doesn’t think it’s a good argument, because it rests on assumptions that not everybody shares, that there are people who will say that human life is not sacred, it doesn’t have a special relationship to God, and so he finds it unsuccessful, an argument that has assumptions that everybody doesn’t share. And I would agree with him, so I wouldn’t phrase it this way. I would just start with a brute fact, that human beings have intrinsic value. Just that fact. And we disagree about explaining that fact.
Some people will say it’s just a brute fact. Human beings have intrinsic dignity. It needs no explanation. But many other philosophers, like Peter Singer and others, will say that that’s very implausible just to assert this. Why should DNA matter? Why should we have special value just because we have certain proteins in our DNA? That doesn’t seem to make sense. And I would agree that biologically you can’t really draw a line in value between humans and non-humans. If you try to draw that line, for example, why do humans matter more than non-humans, most philosophers will point to the uniquely human things we can do. Rational thought. Shelly Kagan in his debate with William Lane Craig, for example, talks about how humans can compose symphonies, for example.
Once creatures evolve that are capable of stepping back from their actions, capable of reflecting about whether or not their behavior makes sense, whether it conforms to standards that they are themselves prepared to endorse, at that point the machinery is in place. At that point, there are reasons for me to behave in certain ways and to avoid other kinds of behavior. And if you ask, but what makes that wrong?
William Lane Craig:
I’m still not clear as to why these beings suddenly achieve intrinsic moral worth in virtue of having these complex nervous systems that enables them to have self-reflection and so forth.
If you put it as complex nervous systems, it sounds pretty deflationary. What’s so special about having a complex nervous system? But of course that complex nervous system allows you to do calculus, it allows you to do astrophysics, it allows you to write poetry, it allows you to fall in love. Put under that description, you ask, what’s so special about humans from a naturalistic perspective? I’m at a loss to know how to answer that question. If you don’t see why we’d be special and different from everything else in creation, that because we can do poetry, we can write a novel, we can think philosophical thoughts, we can do calculus, and we can think about the morality of our behavior, I don’t know what kind of answer could possibly satisfy you at that point.
But here’s the problem, if the things that make humans valuable are the way our unique human functioning, like rational thought, not every human being can do that. If our value comes from our abilities, well, the human beings that don’t have those abilities would not have value, like the disabled or infants. But if our value just comes from being human itself, then that raises the question, why does being human in and of itself, why does that make you valuable? And not just that you’re valuable, that you have equal value?
Jeff McMahon is a pro-choice philosopher. Another really good one. Boonin is one of the most sophisticated ones. Jeff McMahon would be another. But he admits that his theory of human value that he offers to allow for abortion to be moral, he admits that it kind of destroys human equality, because if our value is based in our interests or in our present and current abilities or our desires or our functioning mind, well, that’s all very unequal among human beings. Having human DNA and being a human organism, that makes us equal, that gives us human equality, though it begs the further question, why does just having human DNA matter? Unless human beings were created by God and stand in a special relationship with him?
Here’s how McMahon puts it and what makes him really concerned about a thesis of human value that doesn’t just rely on our biological humanity. He says, “All this leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. It seems virtually unthinkable to abandon our egalitarian commitments or even to accept that they might be justified only in some indirect way,” that human equality is a useful fiction or something, for example, “because it is for the best all things considered to treat all people as equals and to inculcate the belief that all are indeed one another’s moral equals, even though in reality they are not.” So useful fiction.
He then goes on to talk about the compatibility our all or nothing egalitarian beliefs with the fact that the properties on which our moral status appears to supervene are all matters of degree, like rational thought or abilities. It is hard to avoid the sense that our egalitarian commitments rest on distressingly insecure foundations. And so that’s what I’ve noticed in my arguments dealing with abortion. It’s very, very hard to defend the morality of abortion without defending the morality of infanticide. Because there isn’t a morally relevant difference between a baby the day before it’s born and the day after it’s born. Nothing really changes. And the most sophisticated pro-choice philosophers admit this, or they’re extremely hesitant about where their position lies.
So you go back to Kagan saying, “We have symphonies. We can do all these wonderful things. That’s what makes humans valuable.” Well, an infant can’t do any of those things. There are non-human animals that do more impressive cognitive feats than an infant. So if you ground human value just in our time relative interests, as McMahon would say, or in these kinds of things, you lose intrinsic value.
Some people will say infants just have value extrinsically, because we grant it to them. I mean, you could bite that bullet, but you got to admit your morality, now it’s shaky if you have a class of human beings who have rights only because everybody else agrees they have rights. You can’t have it intrinsically, which many people will find to be implausible.
McMahon also recognizes the problem here. If you ground human value, like Kagan, we can do symphonies. Well, infants can’t do that. All of our morality to allow for abortion, it’s hard to exclude infants as well, and infanticide would seem to follow. And so here’s what McMahon writes. “It therefore seems difficult within the framework I have sketched to avoid the conclusion that it would be permissible and perhaps even morally required, if other things are equal, to kill a healthy orphaned newborn in order to use its organs to save three other children. Most people will find this implication intolerable, and I confess that I cannot embrace it without significant misgivings and considerable unease.”
So we see what happens, that we’re morally certain that infanticide is wrong. Not everybody is. But what’s funny, some people say, “Well, how do you know infanticide is wrong?” And I want to say, “It just is. I don’t care what you think. It’s a basic moral intuition.” My opponents would probably have a basic moral intuition that rape is wrong, including raping an unconscious person where they never find out. If you have a basic moral intuition that that’s wrong, I can have a basic moral intuition, and I agree it’s wrong, I can have a basic moral intuition it’s wrong to kill babies after they’re born. I see no reason to jettison that moral intuition.
But McMahon is saying here that, “Well, we don’t have a principled reason beyond that intuition, under this view of what makes killing wrong.” But if what makes killing wrong is that all human beings have a special kind of dignity, if that is the case, we have to ask, well, what is the source of that just beyond our DNA? And other people go a lot further than McMahon, Peter Singer makes it very clear that you can’t arbitrarily draw the line at birth. Here’s what he writes. “We cannot coherently hold that it is all right to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born, everything must be done to keep it alive. The solution, however, is not to accept the pro-life view, that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite, to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth.”
And that’s what I really want to drive home here. If you are unshakably committed to the view that human beings have unique value compared to any other creature, human beings have equal, unique, and intrinsic value, and so we should treat them as equals amongst each other when it comes to basic rights, we should not sacrifice the welfare of an innocent human being merely for the welfare of animals, of non-human animals, rather, it should be the other way around. If you are convinced about the unique value of human beings, then I believe atheism does not have the ability to explain it.
You could say, “Well, it’s just a brute fact.” I think it’s okay, but there’s only so many facts you can suppose without explanation to get the work of your argument going. Otherwise, you just have these biological differences that seem to be morally irrelevant. How does one protein matter versus another protein?
If you put it in morally relevant abilities like rationality, empathy, not every human being has those abilities. So you’re really running out of explanatory options under atheism. But under theism, I think you do have some explanation. I think Boonin talks about that, that this sanctity of life argument makes sense if God has a unique value in relation to human beings. Well, why should we care? Well, if God is a source of value, he can impart that value to others.
Robin Le Poidevin is a atheist, and he wrote a introduction to the philosophy of religion. This is a part of his book he writes I find interesting. He says, “Unlike humans, God is a source of moral value. That is, God’s goodness in part consists of the fact that he is the basis of ethics. Since it is not trivial that God plays such a role, it cannot be trivial that God is good. In fact, it is highly morally significant because it points to the source of moral obligation.”
So if God is the source of goodness itself, maybe because God is infinite being and goodness and being are convertible, what makes something good is if it possesses being in accord with its nature and God is just infinite being itself. He doesn’t lack anything, so he can’t be bad or evil. If God is a source of goodness and he endows value to a particular entity and they’re special because of that relationship that they have with him, well then that would be a good explanation for why they have this value.
Some people say. “Well, it’s not really intrinsic then, because it’s coming from God.” And this is where, like I said, there’s more sophisticated objections that can be laid against the argument, but I think that we can overcome it to say that it is intrinsic to us. We don’t generate it, but it is given to us in a special way as a very part of our nature to come from God.
Ultimately, nothing is intrinsic to anything because God creates the world, it doesn’t exist on its own. But we can recognize intrinsic properties and extrinsic properties of objects even if everything ultimately comes from God and doesn’t have intrinsic existence of its own or things like that.
All right, so that was a start. I apologize, this is a little scatter shot, but ultimately I want to explore … I think that maybe a moral argument might be a tough sell for some people, but if you can show that human beings have a special dignity and equal value in relation to all other non-human animals, and you lack atheistic explanations for that because it’s purely biological, you can’t find it in nature why human beings have this exceptionalism and this dignity, perhaps the best explanation for that is a theological explanation from God, who is an ultimate source of human value.
I hope this is helpful for you guys. I look forward to exploring the argument more. I’m sure I’ll engage my atheist friends to hear objections from them, and we’ll see what comes of it. But thank you guys so much and I hope you have a very blessed day.
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