Have you ever spent time with a child? It’s fascinating to watch them grow: to sense their curiosity about the world they are brand new in. I’m fascinated with that curiosity. Nothing is off-limits to a child’s questioning mind. One of the most frequent questions a child asks is “why?” Why is the sky blue? Why do you use your right hand and I use my left one? These kinds of questions are endless when they are small. Despite the fact that we as adults find ourselves easily annoyed by the vast amount of “why” questions a child asks, it’s important that we recognize that they have discovered a foundational truth about the world around us. That is, there is a reason for everything. For every event, there is a cause. For every thing that exists, there is a “why” that explains it to us. Since the dawn of time, man has been asking the “why?” question. We want an explanation for the reality we perceive around us. But that desire for an explanation doesn’t end with the physical. It’s true in the metaphysical as well. It is with the desire for answers, for explanations, that we now approach morality. We want to ask the “why” question about moral truth, and it is with that goal in mind that we approach the topic of this second article. We ended the last post with the following syllogism as our conclusion:
If objective moral values exist, then there is an explanation for them
Objective moral values do exist
Therefore, there is an explanation for them.
The first article tackled the question of moral values existence. We have already demonstrated that objective values do exist. So all that is left is to demonstrate the truth of the first statement, that there is an explanation for moral values. To do this, we are going to use a different syllogism. We are going to demonstrate the truth of the first statement with the following syllogism:
All contingent things require an explanation
Morality is a contingent thing
Morality requires an explanation
Why does there have to be an explanation for moral value? Why can’t they simply exist? What about them tells us we need to try to explain them? To demonstrate the necessity of their existence, we must first frame the discussion by defining terms. The two terms we need to be familiar with in a discussion like this are: necessary, and contingent. These are important terms, and we can’t understand why we need to explain morality without understanding them. Let’s begin with contingent things. Something is said to be contingent when it depends upon something else for its existence, and it is conceivable that the contingent thing could have failed to exist. There could be possible universes where that thing did not exist. Basically everything in our universe is contingent. The cosmos, you and I, the objects in the room around you. They do not exist on their own power, and it is conceivable that they could not exist in other universes. The reality of contingent being is actually one of the First Principles of logic, a principle philosophers know as the Principle of Existential Contingency (contingent being exists). Contingent things stand opposite to Necessary things. Contingent things, by definition, require an explanation because they do not cause themselves.
Something is considered to be a necessary being or thing when there is no conceivable universe in which it could have failed to exist. It has to exist, of necessity, in every conceivable universe. Necessary things also require no explanation. They exist by virtue of their own nature.
What happens when we evaluate morality in the light of contingency or necessity? What sort of thing are moral values? To find out, we need to ask one simple question: could morality have failed to exist? Is there any conceivable world in which morality could have been otherwise? The answer is: certainly. Moral values do not seem to be the sort of things which exist of necessity. Although they are objective and absolute, they could have failed to exist. This leads us to one conclusion: moral values are contingent upon something for their existence. They owe their existence to something that caused them. So the second statement of the new syllogism is true: morality is a contingent thing.
The first statement in the new syllogism, that every contingent thing requires a cause to explain it, is true. But how do we know that? This statement is actually a restatement of a philosophical principle known as the Principle of Sufficient Reason. When Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz wrote expositions of the principle, he restricted it to contingent things so as to account for the self-existence of necessary things. But despite this application to contingent things, how do we know this principle is true? First, it has strong intuitive appeal. All through our lives, from the cradle to the grave, we ask ourselves “why?” It seems that we are born with a curiosity that asks “why?” So there is an intuitive reason to trust the principle. Second, since the principle is restricted to contingent things, we know it is true. This is because contingent things require a reason by definition. They don’t cause themselves, so they require a cause. So we have a definition reason to accept the principle. Lastly, and possibly most convincing, a rejection of the PSR leads to consequences in life most of us are not willing to accept. For example, a rejection of the PSR is essentially a rejection of science altogether, for science is the search for causes. In addition, one would also need to give up any search for criminal justice. Criminal proceedings rely heavily on forensics, which seeks reasons (why did this person die, and how? Who broke in?). Without forensics, evidence is gone, without evidence, certain justice would be gone. Hence the PSR’s heavy integration in our search for truth renders it’s abandonment impossible.
So we saw that both the first and second premises of the second syllogism are true, which means that the conclusion that morality has to have a sufficient explanation is true by necessity. What exactly are the possible explanations for moral existence? Which one better explains reality as we know it? Which theory should be preferred? These will be the kinds of questions that lead us to a conclusion about whether morals are grounded in God or not, and will be the subject of the rest of our articles.