Procedural Realism: Refuting the Moral Argument For God

Proponents of the Moral Argument share a view known as substantive realism, which is the view that states that “there are correct procedures for answering moral questions because there are moral truths or facts, which exist independently of those procedures, and which those procedures track.”1

Let’s consider the fatal flaws this position has:

  • Whether one argues that morality is simply objective or it’s objective because it hinges on god, the view begs the question and thus isn’t justified. Begging the question is a fallacy, so a view that begs the question is either incorrect or must be revised so as to eliminate the fallacy in question.
  • The view is unjustifiably metaphysical. It, in other words, argues that morality is innate. It cannot be learned. It is part of the maker’s mark that god supposedly imprinted in us.
  • Given the weaknesses of this view, we need to look elsewhere; in other words, given that it isn’t enough to posit that morality is contingent on a deity, we’ve more work to do.

Prior to discussing procedural realism as contrasted with substantive realism, the notion alluded to in the second bullet point–which is, in fact, the notion alluded to by any proponent of the Moral Argument–was put to rest by the father of empiricism, John Locke. He argued that moral principles are not innate. One reason for this is because they aren’t universally assented to. We don’t come to immediate consensus on right and wrong the way we do when concerning the laws of logic. To put it another way, no matter the person or culture, the laws of identity, of non-contradiction, and of excluded middle are universally agreed upon. If any person fails to act in accordance with those laws, that person has failed to think or has lost his/her capacity to reason. This is not the case with morality.

Locke argues, for instance, that the consensus on whether an action is right or wrong has everything to do with how generalized the action was. Proponents of the Moral Argument argue that we all know it’s wrong to lie, to murder, or to rape, and from this, they conclude that morality proceeds from god and since we’re created in his image, moral values and duties have been ingrained in our souls since creation. Yet if we were to get more specific, agreement dissolves. Have a discussion, for example, on euthanasia, self-defense murder, and Anne Frank-esque sort of lies, i.e., lies that literally save lives or keeps one from harm, and you’ll immediately see that there’s absolutely no consensus on these matters.

The reason is because, as Locke further argued, we are likelier to provide reasons and justifications for our moral behavior. If it’s innate or proceeds from god, there will be no disagreement on these epistemic fronts. We would, in other words, be readily able to show why such an action is right or wrong. There would be no need to prove the correctness or incorrectness of an action, since this would already be known to us.2 Unfortunately, this isn’t the only claim implicit in the Moral Argument, so there’s more to be said.

Enter procedural realism: “there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them.”3 Such a procedure could be Kant’s CI procedure or a problem-solution model. Or it could be something simpler. The procedures could even vary. In narrowing our focus, we should consider Kant’s CI procedure, which can be expressed in the following ways. There are four formulas for us to consider4:

1) The Formula of the Law of Nature: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”

Kant placed a lot of emphasis on autonomy. Modern Kantians like John Rawls and Christine Korsgaard place similar emphasis on autonomy, but they also speak of self-legislation. This formulation is compelling because moral truths could arise from mere human agency rather than divine authority. One may contend that a psychopath would will murder as if it were a universal law of nature. However, like Goldstein, I would argue that morality is akin to crowdsourced knowledge; morality is, in other words, the culmination of human efforts spanning centuries. Rebecca Goldstein puts it this way:

There’s some ideal algorithm for working it out, for assigning weights to different opinions. Maybe we should give more weight to people who have lived lives that they find gratifying and that others find admirable. And, of course, for this to work the crowd has to be huge; it has to contain all these disparate vantage points, everybody who’s starting from their own chained-up position in the cave [Plato’s cave analogy]. It has to contain, in principle, everybody. I mean, if you’re including just men, or just landowners, or just people above a certain IQ, then the results aren’t going to be robust.5

This is a point I often make about moral epistemology. I argue that there are moral classes that are roughly analogous to economic classes. Some people have more moral expertise and therefore, lead more admirable and ethical lives. The average person is, at the very least, better than the career criminal. Sam Harris has endorsed this idea. He states:

Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise; that is what it is for knowledge to count. How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere, there is no such thing as moral expertise or moral talent or moral genius even? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering? Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering? No. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?6

Sam Harris is talking about moral classes. One reason some of us are convinced that there can’t be moral expertise, talent, or genius is because of fervent religious belief. Christians argue that without god, true morality cannot be achieved. Without god, all we’re left with is human opinion–-as though all human opinion is equal. Some opinions are undoubtedly better than others. The opinions that have been thus far expressed are better than those of Christians who disagree with them. It should be clear to any impartial third party that one side has thought more, read more, studied more, questioned more, and so on, and that in light of this, one set of opinions is superior to the other.

In the same vein as Harris, Goldstein talked about ruling out the peculiarities of certain people. Every moral opinion doesn’t count and that’s because some people and groups are morally superior to others. Unless one wants to argue that people are generally on par with the Taliban when it comes to morality, they’re admitting to the fact that there are moral classes. As stated, a simple corollary are economic classes. It’s clear that some people are prosperous and others are not. Some people can afford mansions and luxury cars; some people can afford a three-story house; others can barely afford an apartment and still others can scarcely afford a room; still others are homeless. In like manner, some people are simply morally superior to others and when looked at objectively, one will quickly realize that religious affiliation has nothing to do with it.

Some people, for instance, can see the injustice in discrimination and perpetrating acts of prejudice against minorities and gays. Some Christians cannot. Any Christian or non-Christian that has the capacity to see such injustice is in a higher moral class than Westboro Baptist and conservative, right wing Christians.

Some are admittedly anti-gay. This makes clear that they advocate restrictive legislation against them. They will protest the legislation of gay marriage though it’s already been made legal. They likely argue to invalidate the love gay couples share; this is quite common among conservatives. They misrepresent gays by accusing them of succumbing to so called sinful concupiscence. I, for one, wouldn’t advocate restrictive legislation against a group if whatever they’re doing isn’t harming anyone. Other than self-righteousness, what do they care if gays marry? Are they at their weddings? Are they watching them as they consummate their marriages? Are they there when homosexual couples choose to raise children? Conservative Christians might clamor about public displays of affection, but it’s not like straight people don’t forget to get a room! Given their self-proclaimed discriminatory stances, it can be stated without hesitation that they’re in a lower moral class than Christians and non-Christians who don’t think that way.

2) The Formula of the End Itself: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

What is meant by treating a person never simply as a means, but always as an end? This means to extend kindness to others with no intention of exploiting them, e.g. I’ll befriend this guy because he’s rich. You may contend that this sounds like Jesus’ Golden Rule. The Golden Rule, first and foremost, isn’t original to Jesus. This will be much more relevant shortly. Patricia Churchland puts it succinctly:

The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) is very often held up as a judicious rule, and exceptionless rule, and a rule that is universally espoused, or very close to it. (Ironically perhaps, Confucius, though known to prefer the development of virtues to instruction by rules, might have been among the first to give voice to a version of this maxim, though given his broad approach to morality, it is likely he offered it as general advice rather than as an exceptionless rule.)7

Like Churchland, I don’t think the Golden Rule is sufficient. Also, this formulation is simply not the Golden Rule. Don Berkich, Philosophy professor at Texas A&M stated the following:

“Some  make the mistake of thinking that the First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative is but a badly worded version of the Biblical “Golden Rule”–Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Golden Rule, as Kant well knew, is a deeply misguided ethical principle. To see this, consider the following somewhat salacious example.

Suppose that Martin is 20 year-old college student. Suppose further that Martin has never been out on a date. The woman of his dreams finally agrees to go out with him. So Martin gets all dressed up and takes her out to a nice dinner, after which they drive up to Lookout Point. And…Martin does unto others as he would have done unto himself, with disastrous consequences. Because the same result cannot be obtained by application of the Categorical Imperative, it follows that the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative are not extensionally equivalent.”8

Kant argued that if we were to act to harm others, civilization would come to an end. It follows then that we’ll act to the benefit of one another. This is where Kant’s notion of a Kingdom of Ends comes from. We’ll get this shortly.

On the Golden Rule, a necessary tangent is required. The Golden Rule, according to Christians, is original to Jesus despite historical facts to the contrary. Jesus is, however, considered god incarnate. He is one with Yahweh. He is one mode of the Triune godhead. Therefore, if the Moral Argument is right in stating that moral values and duties exist because god exists, then these moral values and duties are based on a flawed ethical view known as egoism. This is precisely what Jesus advocates in the Golden Rule. In other words, any right action is the product of your own self-interest. The benefits I can reap are the basis of all my actions. Without diverging too far, I reject the Golden Rule and all variants of egoism for the same reason Louis Pojman rejected it:

We do not always consciously seek our own satisfaction or happiness when we act. In fact, some people seem to seek their own unhappiness, as masochists and self-destructive people do, and we all sometimes seem to act spontaneously without consciously considering our happiness.9

Given this, if the Golden Rule is a rudimentary formulation of egoism–-and I see no compelling reason to think it’s not–-we can reject Jesus’ ethical system and therefore, god’s basis for moral values and duties. It follows that the Moral Argument is wrong.

3) The Formula of Autonomy: “So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims.”

This is related to the first formulation, but this formulation puts more emphasis on autonomy and like modern Kantians would argue, self-legislation. This formula of autonomy has manifested itself time and again. Morally superior people are not only admirable, but they compel others to emulate them. This formulation is prominent in rearing children. Children learn moral behavior from their parents, so in a sense, this goes back to Locke; if moral principles are innate, they would, in his words, be known to “children and idiots.” Children quickly learn what’s apt and what’s inappropriate given other people’s feedback. If they do something wrong, they’re scolded. If they do something right, they’re commended. Going back to the notion of inverting authority into oneself, the child then becomes an adult who (roughly) follows the moral values instilled in her during childhood. She then becomes an autonomous self-legislator. God isn’t necessary once again and thus, the Moral Argument is wrong.

4) The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: “So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”

This formulation is the most compelling given that it absorbs, so to speak, the other formulations. Kant didn’t only speak of wills; he spoke of rational wills. Thus, under this formulation, we are to act in such a way that would be acceptable in a community of rational wills. In a community of rational wills, rape and murder would be unacceptable. Since people are autonomous, taking their lives is a violation of their autonomy. Your fellow rational wills will also recognize you as an autonomous individual and thus, without any need for Jesus’ Golden Rule or more generally, egoism, the rights conferred to them will also be conferred to you. It certainly looks as though developed countries look a lot more like Kant’s Kingdom of Ends than like a society of egoists pursuing their own self-interests. Even despite capitalism, people enjoy charity, sharing, altruism, and equality. People, in other words, recognize one another as autonomous and there are strict laws in place to punish people who violate the autonomy of others.

Ultimately, the Christian demand for an authority is quelled by the fact that we, at the very least, possess the potential to legislate. That is to say that anyone of us can be exemplary moral agents. Kant’s rational will is preferable over the Hobbesian sovereign who can bend and break laws as he pleases. Such a sovereign sounds a lot like god. Also, their demand for a viable non-theistic ethical view has been addressed. The Moral Argument has not only been refuted, but the superiority of procedural realism, as a viable non-theistic view, has also been established.

Works Cited

1 Korsgaard, Christine M., and Onora Neill.The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 36-37. Print.

2 See Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in Cahn, Steven M. Ed. Classics of Western Philosophy, 7th Ed. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/Cambridge. 2006. 630-632. Print.

3 Ibid. [2]

4  Pecorino, Philip A. “Chapter Two: Ethical Traditions”. Queensborough Community College. 2002.

5 Goldstein, Rebecca. Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014. 105. Print.

6 Churchland, Patricia Smith. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. 168. Print.

7 Pojman, Louis P. Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub., 1990. 84. Print.

8 Ibid. [4]

9 Bagnoli, Carla. “Constructivism in Metaethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2011.



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