If there is a moral landscape, and if at least some objective values and obligations hold independent of minds and speakers, then what best explains the reality of objective morality? What grounds it or makes it true? There are a few options: nothing, the universe, or God. Let’s consider each in turn.
If nothing grounds objective morality, then the objective moral order is just a brute fact. There is no explanation. Moral values and moral obligations just exist. Period. End of story. On a prominent version of this approach described in Erik Wielenberg’s Robust Ethics, moral values and obligations are abstract objects. Abstract objects are funny sorts of things. They exist just like more familiar concrete objects such as tables, chairs, and the like, but they do so outside space and time. To endorse belief in these abstract things is to endorse Platonism, in honor of Plato and his theory of Eternal Forms. Wielenberg defends what we might call a kind of Platonic Atheism. We could also call Wielenberg’s view a kind of Brute Fact Atheism since moral facts are brute or unexplained. According to Brute Fact or Platonic Atheism, then, there is the physical universe and an abstract realm of moral facts. This view is a philosophically viable option. As Wielenberg points out, explanations must stop somewhere, so why not with brute moral facts?
For at least four reasons, I don’t think that Brute Fact Atheism is the best explanation for objective morality. First, it seems utterly mysterious how properties in the abstract realm—for example, being good, being evil, being right, being wrong—hook up to various things and actions in the physical world. Why is it that my childhood act of stealing office supplies hooks up with the abstract property being wrong instead of being right? The answer, at the end of the day, is that it just does. Period. But this makes Brute Fact Atheism less attractive than the alternatives, for now the amount of brute facts needed to make the theory work has multiplied. Not only does it offer no explanation for the objective moral order; it also offers no explanation for how the moral and natural orders connect.
Second, Brute Fact Atheism can’t explain the authority or obligatoriness of moral duties. Why is it that we have an obligation to be honest? What explains this “oughtness”? Obligations and duties attach, it seems, to persons, not things. I’m not obligated to the chair I’m currently sitting on. I don’t owe it anything. Suppose I’m thinking about jumping off a roof for fun and, in my infinite wisdom, consider landing on a chair to soften the impact. Suppose too that if I jump, I’ll likely break the chair (and suppose I see this likelihood). As I consider this (foolish) action, an action I regularly contemplated as a kid, we might ask: Would I owe it to the chair to refrain from jumping? No. I’m not obligated to things. I am, on the other hand, obligated to people. I’m obligated to myself to not do stupid and unsafe things like jumping off roofs. And I’m obligated—in this case my wife and kids—to not put them in a position of needing to care for me when that leg breaks. Obligations naturally attach to persons, not things. In this way, theism—belief in a personal being worthy of worship—better accommodates the obligatoriness of moral duties by locating a proper ultimate source of moral authority.
Third, Brute Fact Atheism cannot account for the guilt we feel when we do wrong. Suppose I had a magical ring that made me invisible. Why be moral? (Plato famously presses this question in the Republic, and Tolkien playfully presses this idea in his Middle Earth novels.) If I cheated, lied, even raped and murdered, no one would know it was me. Yet I’d still feel guilty. I’ll bet you would too. (Don’t take my word for it; imagine yourself in this scenario. What do you find?) If there is a moral law but no moral lawgiver, then why do I have this sense of guilt when I do wrong—even if no one can see what I do? This need to rectify our moral failures is best explained if there are both a moral law and a moral lawgiver.
Finally, Brute Fact Atheism cannot account for why we have mental capacities that track moral truths. If the grand, naturalistic, evolutionary story explains why we have the cognitive capacities that we have, then we have no good reason to trust what our mental lives tell us. After all, evolution selects traits for survival, not truth. Thus, we have no reason to think that our cognitive capacities are aimed at truth, and we have no reason to think that our moral beliefs track truth. In other words, the fact that we do have moral knowledge is hard to explain given Brute Fact Atheism. On the other hand, if God exists, we have good reasons to think that our cognitive faculties are in fact reliable for tracking moral truths; arguably, God wants us to know moral truths, and thus he ensured (through either natural or supernatural processes) that our cognitive faculties develop such that they are capable of tracking moral truths.
I conclude that Brute Fact Atheism doesn’t best explain objective morality.
— Paul M. Gould is an Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Director of the M.A. Philosophy of Religion program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is the author or editor of ten scholarly and popular-level books including Cultural Apologetics, Philosophy: A Christian Introduction, and The Story of the Cosmos. He has been a visiting scholar at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Henry Center, working on the intersection of science and faith, and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. You can find out more about Dr. Gould and his work at Paul Gould.com and the Two Tasks Institute. He is married to Ethel and has four children.
Taken from Paul M. Gould, A Good and True Story: Eleven Clues to Understanding Our Universe and Your Place in It (Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2022). Used by permission.