The Golden Rule and the Foundation of Objective Morality

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. ~ Matthew 7:12 (NIV)

The “Moral Argument for God” asserts that there would be no moral truths if there were no God. Here is how prominent Christian apologist William Lane Craig formulates the argument:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

His argument is flawed because the concept of “duty” imports his conclusion by implying the existence of social norms and laws which require a legislative agent whereas our moral intuitions are based on what we think is right or wrong regardless of such things. Our moral intuitions are based entirely on the nature of the action itself and its effect on sentient beings. They have absolutely nothing to do with social norms or duties. This is self-evident because any social norm is itself subject to moral judgment. They can be moral or immoral. Dr. Craig’s error is evident from a simple review of Webster’s definition of duty which depends critically on legislative agents like parents, superiors, civil laws, and institutions like the military:

1: conduct due to parents and superiors
2a: obligatory tasks, conduct, service, or functions that arise from one’s position
2b: (1) assigned service or business (2) : active military service (3) : a period of being on duty
3a: a moral or legal obligation
3b: the force of moral obligation

Another fundamental flaw in Dr. Craig’s argument is his disjunction between moral ontology and moral epistemology. Here is how he expresses it in his article Keeping Moral Epistemology and Moral Ontology Distinct:

I’m convinced that keeping the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology clear is the most important task in formulating and defending a moral argument for God’s existence of the type I defend. A proponent of that argument will agree quite readily (and even insist) that we do not need to know or even believe that God exists in order to discern objective moral values or to recognize our moral duties. Affirming the ontological foundations of objective moral values and duties in God similarly says nothing about how we come to know those values and duties. The theist can be genuinely open to whatever epistemological theories his secular counterpart proposes for how we come to know objective values and duties.

Dr. Craig’s essential error is his idea that “the ontological foundations of objective moral values and duties in God … says nothing about how we come to know those values and duties.” This is absurd for two reasons. First, we would never be talking about the abstract philosophical “ontological foundations” of moral values if we didn’t already have a compelling epistemological foundation for how we know them. Second, epistemology and ontology are mutually dependent as explained by Hugh G. Gauch, Jr. his book Scientific Method in Practice (quote available online):

In ordinary discourse, ontology, epistemology, and logic are reasonably distinct and recognizable topics within philosophy. But at the point where discourse begins, those topics fuse together. The reason is that epistemology presumes ontology, because what we know depends on what exists. But also ontology presumes epistemology, because what we can become aware of depends on our sensory and cognitive faculties. And logic is operating in any rational discourse.

It is impossible to understand the objective ground of morality (ontology) without understanding how we know if something is moral (epistemology). The two aspects must be fully unified in any intellectually satisfying theory of morality. And so the fundamental question is this: How do we know if something is moral? The answer, with which Dr. Craig appears to agree when he says he would “appeal to all the same mechanisms that you appeal to in order to explain how you know” the truth of moral values, is the Golden Rule. That is how any sentient being determines if something is moral. We put ourselves in the place of the other and ask if we would want to be subject to our own actions. This is the principle of moral symmetry. So why is it so important for Dr. Craig to keep moral ontology separate from moral epistemology? It is because he desires to use moral values to prove the existence of God and so must hide the root of our moral intuitions which obviously has nothing to do with any god. He attempts to ground moral values ontologically in “God’s commands.” This is called the Divine Command Theory. It is fraught with fatal philosophical problems and is, in my estimation, fundamentally irrational because it breaks the connection between the nature of an action, what it is (moral ontology), and how we know if it is right or wrong (moral epistemology).

A Complete theory of Objective Morality

The philosophical clouds of confusion quickly disperse when we simply appeal to the Golden Rule, the root of our moral intuitions. It is an objective rule because it is based on an objective principle of moral symmetry which constrains any morally valid statement concerning person A and person B to be invariant under an interchange of the two persons, everything else being equal. Specifically:

Person A can discern if action X affecting person B is moral if person A would be willing to be subject to action X by person B (everything else being equal).

This statement is symmetric under an interchange of person A and person B. It is an objective way for anyone to know if there actions are moral. The same formula can be written to objectively define the moral value of any action X:

An action X by person A affecting person B is moral if and only if person A would be willing to be subject to action X by person B (everything else being equal).

It is an objective standard because it’s truth value does not depend on any particular individual (confusions relating to the subjective “willingness” of person A will be dealt with in a future article). It is a satisfying theory of morality because it tells us why something is moral. It is nothing but a precise formulation of the Golden Rule, the most universal moral principle, explained in terms of moral symmetry. It is analogous to the symmetry constraints used to derived fundamental laws of physics. For example, the law of conservation of angular momentum can be derived from the rotational symmetry of space by Noether’s Theorem. It is also similar to the Pauli Exclusion Principle which imposes a symmetry constraint on the quantum state vector and so explains the structure of the atom. Thus our deepest moral intuitions are formally similar to the logic that led to our greatest insights into the fundamental nature of physical reality.

There is much more to say (involving love, for example) and many details to work out (such as objections involving psychopaths and masochists, the meaning of “everything else being equal,” etc.) which will be the subject of a series of articles. But nothing can detract from the profound depth, beauty, and simplicity of this line of reasoning to understand the root and reality of our moral intuitions. I am confident that this argument will yield an intellectually satisfying and robust theory of objective morality.

Update: I have expanded this argument in my article The Logic of Love: A Natural Theory of Morality.

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One comment on “The Golden Rule and the Foundation of Objective Morality
  1. Everything is very open with a very clear description of the issues. It was truly informative. Your website is very helpful. Many thanks for sharing!

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