Are Moral Facts Independent of God?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Many people know that it is wrong to rape, but know nothing about the goodness of the Christian God. How we come to know moral facts is often different from how we come to know theological facts. Based on this truth, many skeptics claim moral facts must be independent of God. This conclusion, however, is simply mistaken.

An illustration may help to explain. The following is adapted from philosopher John Milliken.

Imagine a language called Twing someone makes up and sets down in an official manuscript. Suppose, years later, a person named Tim learns Twing indirectly from some friends who speak it. Suppose further that one day he stumbles upon the official manuscript, reads it, and exclaims about the official manuscript, “This thing is written in perfect Twing!”

Tim is here making a substantive statement. Tim learned Twing from his friends, without ever knowing anything about the official manuscript. But then, when he came across the official manuscript, he recognized that the manuscript was “written in perfect Twing!” His discovery of the manuscript was completely independent of his discovery of Twing through his friends.

Even though Tim came to know Twing separately from how he came to discover the manuscript, it would be ridiculous to say that perfect Twing is independent of the official manuscript. For without the official manuscript, it would be impossible for perfect Twing to exist. The official manuscript is the source of Twing.

Christians claim we can discover moral facts without knowing about God, but when we do discover who God is, we can identify moral goodness with God. This is not some slight-of-hand move by Christian theologians. John Milliken explains how this works:

It is clear that, in order to make a substantive ascription of goodness to God, our conception of it need only be epistemically independent and not ontologically so. In other words, it is only necessary that we learn what is good from instances other than God. It would be a real and important discovery for us that what we antecedently understood as the good is exemplified in God, even if He is ultimately its source.

God is the Good, and so moral facts are not ontologically independent of God, even though we may come to know God independently of moral facts.

  • Pablo de Fleurs

    I’ve often used the analogy of a goldfish swimming around in a fish tank. Although oblivious to the water, the water permeates its world, environment & every aspect of its existence. If the goldfish began asserting that it invented the water, or that the water gradually formed itself in & around the tank over many centuries…it would be wrong; regardless of the elaborate syllogisms it might construct to argue for water’s independence from it environment.

    So too with moral law. Constructed by God, morality is written upon our hearts. All hearts, regardless of whether one has accepted the existence of God or not. David Brooks once wrote in a NY Times article that the reason we “know” that
    mankind invented morality is because there are some things “that we just know” – without bothering to determine how it is we “know” them. And then, given topics like abortion or homosexuality, the left constructs arguments defending the
    immoral – further deteriorating their argument that morality is a product of man. In their case, morality is whatever they’ve come to redefine, in their pursuit of sophistication & faux intellectualism.

  • That’s funny. The very fact that the Right attacks gays as being immoral – with such poor arguments – for me is evidence that their claim to an ‘objective morality’ is bogus.

    “the left constructs arguments defending the immoral”
    …Alternatively, the right constructs arguments attacking the moral.

    All your argument demonstrates is the those on the right and left disagree on moral issues, and both sides frequently invoke God to back up their side of the argument. This is not proof either way for a God-given morality, or indeed morality written on our hearts.

    Regarding your goldfish analogy, one might as well compare mankind to a puddle in a hole that is convinced the hole was made for it, given how well the puddle fits in the hole.