The Moral Argument

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THE MORAL ARGUMENT

How do we explain the fact that people often refrain from immoral acts even when there is no risk of their being caught?

There are many formulations of the moral argument but they all have as their starting point the phenomenon (fact) of moral conscience. In essence the moral argument poses the question: where does our conscience, our sense of morality come from if not from God? It also asserts that if we accept the existence of objective moral laws we must accept the existence of a divine law-giver. It is an argument therefore which infers the existence of God from the empirical evidence of a psychological phenomenon. This is the observable fact that human beings sometimes appear to act from a sense of moral duty in which there is no self-interest or thought for the consequences of that act.

Cardinal Newman, for example, deduces God’s existence from the fact of conscience rather than from objective moral law: If, as is the case, we feel responsibility,... are frightened at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies there is One to whom we are responsible... If the cause of these emotions does not belong to this visible world, the object to which our perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine.’

Dom Trethowan’s version of the moral argument rejects the use of logic and instead interprets morality as a religious experience, which points towards the existence of God. When we make a moral decision, that is to say when we are guided by our conscience, a sense of obligation dictates our choice. According to Trethowan, underlying this sense of obligation is the conviction that each person has value. If we accept that other people have intrinsic value then we have to ask what the source of this value is. Trethowan’s answer is God: We have value because we receive it from a source of value. That is what I mean...by God.

HP Owen argues that objective moral laws exist and that there must therefore be a divine law-giver: ...it is impossible to think of a command without also thinking of a commander.

It is Kant’s version of the moral argument, however, which is the best known and which requires closer examination. He drew an important distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is a directive such as: If you want x, do y. For example: Be considerate to others if you want to get on in life When we obey a hypothetical imperative we do so as a means to an end and the benefit to us is evident. According to Kant, obedience to a hypothetical imperative is not truly moral behaviour. Only when we obey categorical imperatives are we behaving in a truly moral fashion. It is wrong to break a promise, according to Kant, not because in doing so we may lose the trust of others but because in making a promise we have incurred a moral obligation and thus are ‘duty-bound’ to keep it.

One of the best known formulations of the categorical imperative is: So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other as an end withal, never as a means only. Like Trethowan, the essence of moral behaviour for Kant lies in an appreciation of the intrinsic value of other people and also in the fact that the act is not a means to an end. There can be no room for self-interest or consideration of the consequences in truly moral behaviour. If we resist the temptation to steal only because we don’t want to get caught we are not behaving morally. We are behaving morally, on the other hand, if we desist because we believe it is wrong to steal and that by stealing we would be treating someone else as a means to an end (e.g for our own enrichment).

Kant then goes on to argue that in an ideal world (one in which virtue was always rewarded and vice punished) moral behaviour (that which is in accordance with the categorical imperative) would always lead to happiness. In the real world, however, this does not necessarily happen. Therefore there...
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