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Is Plato’s “good” enough?

This post is adapted from an original on 25 October 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Atheistic Moral Platonism.” It is about an objection to the moral argument for God’s existence on the basis that the foundation for morality is in the realm of platonic ideas.

The moral argument for Gods existence goes like this;

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

While most ethicists agree with the second premise (see here for a defence), that moral values and duties are objective, there is however wide disagreement about what makes morality objective. To make something objective, there needs to be a ground – a foundation to stand on, or a hook to hang on – something in the real world, outside of the mind that is above or beyond any individual invention or group preference. The first premise in the moral argument above puts forward the idea that this ground is most plausibly found in God. However, some ethicists object to this, thinking that objective moral values and duties do not require a foundation in God’s existence, but are instead most plausibly anchored in some transcendent, non-theistic ground.

This ground is provided by Plato, who thought that there was a realm of eternal and unchanging ideas that were necessary features of the universe. There was a perfect ‘moral good’ out there somewhere, which individual instances of ‘being morally good’ could compare themselves to. In the absence of God, the moral values and duties we perceive to exist objectively are, they suggest, brute facts, that do not need an explanation for their existence. This position has been described as Atheistic Moral Platonism. There are at least three ways one could respond to this idea.

  1. This view is difficult to even comprehend. What does it mean for “Love” to just exist? In the absence of people to give and receive love, this value just doesn’t seem to make any sense. I understand what it means to be loving towards a person, but for the moral virtue Love to exist in the absence of people is just incomprehensible.
  2. The nature of moral obligation is incomprehensible on this view. If it is the case that these moral values such as Mercy, Love, and Justice just exist, unfounded and independently of God, what or who lays upon me an obligation to be merciful, or loving, or just? There are other sets of values also, like Greed, Hatred and Selfishness. Why am I obligated to choose one set of values over another?
  3. It is fantastically improbable that the sort of creature that would emerge from the blind processes of evolution would correspond to this abstractly existing realm of moral values and obligations. That our awareness of moral values and obligations derived from our evolutionary background, and this realm of objective moral values and obligations – two entirely separate orders of reality – just happened to be in alignment is breathtakingly contrived.

Because of these reasons, Atheistic Moral Platonism is not a good way to avoid the conclusions of the moral argument. On evaluation, it is not at all plausible. Least of all, more plausible than the foundation of objective moral values and duties being God himself, who as a person is loving and can lay obligations upon us.

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