In Practice, Objective Morality Needs No Ultimate Source

In the short video below, Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft goes looking for the ultimate source of morality, doesn’t find it in evolution, reason, conscience, human nature, or utilitarianism, but calls off the search when he starts talking about the laws of morality, i.e., those laws that tell us what ought be, directing and ordering right human behavior. Kreeft argues these these laws, which he says must come from a cause apart from the physical world and therefore above nature, suggest a supernatural lawgiver or moral commander. Consequently, says he, “whenever you appeal to morality, you are appealing to God,” to something religious, whether you know it or not, even if you think you’re an atheist.

Putting aside Kreeft’s neglect to grapple with the arguments put forward by evolutionary biologists and psychologists, utilitarians, and other theorists he’s supposedly rebutting—his presentation clocks at just over five minutes—he makes a foundational assumption that few if any of his imagined interlocutors would share. The persuasiveness of his argument presupposes that morality, as actually practiced, needs an ultimate source, but this presupposition is demonstrably untrue. We make objective moral arguments all the time without ever asking or answering where our morality, so to speak, comes from. We have reasons, and if our reasons refer to principles or to things beyond our likes and dislikes (e.g., human dignity, the value of life, a conception of justice), then we have at hand an objective morality and possibly a sound and persuasive one.

Kreeft speaks of moral laws and commands, and so it’s understandable that he would infer a lawgiver and moral commander to explain his morality, but outside his moral universe, people justify their morality just fine without ascending to a supernatural plane. They may appeal to axiomatic principles allegedly intuited, deemed self-evident, or taken on faith. Proving the existence of God by demonstrating the supernatural origin of morality has little appeal to those whose moral thought begs for no such origin. Besides, even if we get to the level of a divine lawgiver, the question remains why I should obey this being. Any answer given would be intelligible on purely “natural” terms. Heaven and hell, for example, make sense to us as places of happiness and misery, but happiness and misery make sense without getting into ultimate supernatural origins.

Religious thought can contribute to moral thought, but unless you’re looking for certainty and to tie up all conceivable loose ends, I don’t see why Kreeft’s line of thought here would be all that convincing.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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17 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    I think that the best case can be made for the assertion that morality ultimately boils downs to self-interest. We expect to be treated pretty much as we treat others, all things being equal. If I treat you well, I hope that you will treat me well. If I have treated you well, and this as been requited by you, and if either of us is mistreated by a third party, it is in both of our best interests to join together in opposition to that threatening third party; and so on.
    Where there is an imbalance of power this equation becomes more complicated, but I think that it still holds in the final analysis. The king who overly abuses his inherited power must fear the loss of his crown (and probably his head) as a consequence.
    So, morality is more a consequence of selfishness, than it is of altruism, or anything more noble than applied self-interest.

    • zic says:

      I tried to google this, but the story’s lost in the weeds of computer/game/cooperative etc.

      But I’d heard about a study where computers played other computers in a game; some with a bias toward cooperating, some toward selfishness. And after millions of games, the cooperative computers would end up winning more often; the art of compromise led to more frequent wins.

      In nature, we see something similar; take you. Roger. You, my friend, are not an individual.

      What’s that, you say? You’re a vital individual who prises independence and self-reliance?

      That may be true. But you are still not an individual. You are a colony of billions of creatures working together to animate the cooperative entity we know as Roger. When you’re attacked by a hostile entity, say a flu virus, the attack is on many lives, and fought on many fronts. As the valiant workers in your stomach and intestines die in the line of duty, you experience the problems faced when the cooperative workings fail.

      Haven’t such experiments play out in social order, too? Don’t the roots of morality lie in the same successes that computer games with a bias to cooperate, the billions of micro-organisms cooperating to make up Roger, discover? Real-world experiments, run billions of times over, as we travelled from the dark time before memory to now? Working together, devising a social system of ‘morality,’ makes us greater then the sum of our parts.

      The whole red of tooth and claw, predator/prey take is real. But it’s only a very small part of the story; and even there, we miss the important elements of cooperation; the weeding out of the weak, maintenance of population below self-threatening limits.

      • zic says:

        /my reading comprehension lags. I saw ‘Rodak,” and read ‘Roger.’ And I despair, weep, and shrivel at the tribulations of the dyslexic brain, further twisted by a four-day migraine.

        Rodak, Not Roger. I’m sorry. I don’t recall seeing your name here before, I’m zic, I’m a crazy old lady who lives in the woods, though my house does not have chicken legs to turn itself about.

        • Patrick Cahalan says:

          That would be a pretty awesome house, Ms. Yaga.

        • Rodak says:

          @ zic —

          I never said that I was an individual. To wit:

          “If I treat you well, I hope that you will treat me well. If I have treated you well, and this as been requited by you, and if either of us is mistreated by a third party, it is in both of our best interests to join together in opposition to that threatening third party; and so on.”

          Follow that “and so on” into the billions you cite. *smile*

      • James Hanley says:


        I think you’re referencing Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. I’m in agreement with your comment, but I’d just note that the computer tournament that resulted in cooperative behavior winning had nothing of morality about it; rather, it was strictly pragmatic.

        • zic says:

          Thank you James. I did search, and could not find the link.

          Yes, I was attempting (much challenged of the last week, so attempts frequently fail) to reinforce Rodak’s comment from my own twisted perspective — that morality roots in pragmatic cooperation.

  2. James Hanley says:

    We make objective moral arguments all the time without ever asking or answering where our morality, so to speak, comes from.

    We claim they’re objective, and perhaps they are to the extent we intend them to apply to everyone. But that doesn’t mean they’re objective in the way the bullet that smashes one’s skull is objective.

    • Stillwater says:

      Our value judgements are real, it seems to me. And insofar as morality is subsumed by values, then those are real too. The problem arises when people project out from their own value scheme (which is subjective) to a principled rule which purports to be objective (ie., to necessarily hold for all people irrespective of their beliefs).

      Values are real (not as real as a bullet smaching into your head, or at least real in a different way), but moral principles aren’t. And I agree with your reasoning here: the bullet of reality impinges on the ideology of a principle in a way that only the most rabid ideologue wouldn’t concede.

  3. Stillwater says:

    Religious thought can contribute to moral thought, but unless you’re looking for certainty and to tie up all conceivable loose ends, I don’t see why Kreeft’s line of thought here would be all that convincing.

    Two things about this. One is that religious thought doesn’t lead to certainty in any event. Second is that certainty is an epistemological concept that has nothing to do with the facts. In fact, it may tend more towards an emotional stance – rather than an epistemological one – towards the truth of a proposition. If that’s at all right, then a desire for certainty either a) rests in epistemological confusions or b) is caused by a psychological/emotional desire for things to be a certain (ha!) way.

    For people who take these things seriously, Wittgenstein presents an really significant challenge. Even beliefs about methamatics – which are necessary if any beliefs are – don’t lend themselves to a justification of certainty. (For him, it’s a category error in the case of mathematical beliefs.) But more importantly, a justification for the belief that following a rule – adding correctly for example – can’t be given by appeal to an a priori knowable rule that is grasped by the person performing addition. By extension, there are no a priori (in the strict sense of that term) principles which guide our behavior. Hence, contra the dude from the OP, there is no rational reason to appeal to God (in whatever way He or She or It is characterized).

    At the end of the day, the rules we follow (mathematical, moral, whatever) , and the norms we adhere to, are “laws” only insofar as they’re expressed by the community within which a person speaks and thinks and interacts. Sure, a semantic value can be given to “morality” under which it refers to a universal law, or a divine commendment, or something “beyond our ken”. But LvW blew that whole notion out of the water.

    Or more cautiously stated: so it seems to me.

  4. Ramblin' Rod says:

    I hold to the evolutionary view of morality as outlined above by zic. It depends critically on certain personality traits like empathy being hard-wired into our brains and transmitted through the genetic code but I don’t believe that caveat should be troubling or particularly controversial to the schooled.

    Frankly, we need more data points. It would be fascinating to inspect the moral systems of intelligent, sentient, beings/creatures/entities with different physical make-ups, material constraints, or reproductive strategies.

    What of an intelligent but non-social species? Given that much, if not all, of our moral code concerns our interactions with each other, would such a being even have a concept of morality?

    What of a species for whom death is but a temporary inconvenience, like the Cylons of BSG?

    What of a species that didn’t bear live young which they then raised for an extended period, but instead laid a thousand eggs somewhere and then walked away?

    What of an AI existing in a body of plastic and metal with replaceable parts and no sensation of pain?

    What of a species with a communal hive mind like ants (or the Borg)?

    What about… a hundred other possibilities I can’t even imagine?

    I guess the big point to consider here is how much of our “objective” morality is contingent on the actual facts of our physical existence and dependent on the actual path we’ve traveled to our current state of civilization?

  5. Consequently, says he, “whenever you appeal to morality, you are appealing to God,” to something religious, whether you know it or not, even if you think you’re an atheist.

    I confess I didn’t watch the link, but I wonder if this type of reasoning can be modified away from “you cannot adhere to morality without believing in God [or whatever]” to “the decision to subscribe to a system of morals requires a leap of faith very similar to the leap of faith necessary to believe in God [or whatever].”

    This modification denies the almost “gotcha” notion that belief in morality must imply a belief in a deity. But it can, I believe, call some people to question the certainty with which they assert that religious faith is unfathomable or ridiculous.

    Of course, who are the “some people”? These are probably a very small group of militants a la Hitchens or Dawkins and not most people–atheist, agnostic, religious–who approach the issue honestly.

  6. GordonHide says:

    Peter Kreeft starts with the premise that good and evil exist. Well, they have no material existence. I agree that they are terms that describe compliance or its lack with the moral code of conduct of the person using them. You need to believe in the supernatural to believe they have any meaning outside that context. He has not attempted to define these terms in his premise so he’s on shaky ground already.

    He states that if morality can change as in the evolutionary model it can change for good or bad. He states that there must be a standard above these changes to judge them as good or bad. In reality the person doing the evaluation merely refers to his own moral code of conduct when making such a judgement. In evolutionary terms history makes the judgement as it does with all characteristics based on their utility to support the survival of the entities that exibit the characteristics. Whether the particular moral traits support survival will depend on environmental conditions as with more straightforward biological traits.

    He uses slavery as his example. The fact that we generally condemn slavery now he, for some reason, believes demonstrates that slavery is evil by some objective standard. He believes that because I condemn slavery by my own standard it’s a major flaw in the evolutionary model that some society may arise in the future which permits slavery. I have to say that the anti-abotion lobby is trying to force women to bear children they don’t want at great inconvenience and significant risk to their lives. This looks like slavery by any other name to someone like me.

    I suspect his other arguments are equally flawed but as I agree with him that reason, conscience, utility and human nature are not the sole source of morality I won’t go into that.

    Finally he has decided that morality has a supernatural genesis because it has no material existence. But within the human brain it probably does have a material existence. And even if morality is solely an abstract concept it need have no source other than human beings.

    All in all it’s difficult to believe such a comedy of logical errors could come from a philosophy professor.

  7. Zach says:


    Morality needs to have a foundation. Without a foundation, an objective location, i.e. the mind of God, morality is necessarily arbitrary.

    You write: “We make objective moral arguments all the time without ever asking or answering where our morality, so to speak, comes from”. Sure, this is true. But it has nothing to do with whether our principles need foundations or not. For example, if someone, as you suggest, appeals to a principle they call”self-evident”, this hardly justifies the principle as objective. There is no reason a skeptic cannot simply say, “well, I see otherwise”. In contrast, the moral foundationalist can say that the moral principle exists in objective reality – that it’s not simply my opinion of what’s self-evident, but that it’s a true part of reality that finds its origin in the mind of God.

    Just because someone’s thought, e.g. an evolutionary biologist, doesn’t ask some basic metaphysical questions, doesn’t mean that the metaphysical questions are irrelevant.

    What a strange argument for a Catholic to make. Are you still Catholic?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      An objective foundation doesn’t have to be an ultimate source. A set of principles or an ontology could work. You have objectivity if you can point to something beyond the mere subjective on which to base a moral argument. A skeptic may disagree with your premises and reasoning, but he may also disagree with your understanding of “objective reality” or your insistence that there’s such a thing as the mind of God. Metaphysical questions are not all irrelevant to morality, but, in practice, you don’t need to answer where morality originally comes from before you have a foundation on which to act.

      Yes, I am still Catholic, though perhaps a strange one. 😉

      • Zach says:

        OK; agreed that you can point to principles as being objective, and that this can be a foundation for a morality, but ultimately I believe this will be weak and an unsuccessful foundation. I believe morality needs a source, that it needs some location in ultimate reality, to have any “teeth”. If there’s no reason to believe someone’s objective principles other than that they are subjectively appealing to you, then I say there’s no reason to believe them at all.