Only Wrong Most of the Time?: The Failure of Provisional Ethics

Chris Price Articles 1 Comment

The Moral Argument for the existence of God can be stated in this manner:

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

This moral argument is valid. That is, it’s impossible for the conclusion not to follow from the two premises. But are the premises true?

I was recently reading a book by Michael Shermer entitled, The Science of Good and Evil. Shermer is an atheist and a professional skeptic; he is witty, learned, and a prolific writer. In chapter 6, Shermer discusses absolute morality, relative morality and provisional morality/ethics[1]. Shermer dismisses relativism as deeply troubling and unliveable. But on his analysis the opposite position of absolutism is also fraught with difficulties and leans too far in the direction of a theistic moral framework.

Instead, Shermer advocates provisional morality. Provisional ethics is not to be understood as relative ethics or situational ethics, rather this viewpoint is meant to transcend individuals and groups, instead belonging to the entirety of the evolved species. The author defines provisional ethics, as “moral principles are provisionally true of most people most of the time in most circumstances.”[2] He goes on to write: “Provisional ethics may not be ultimately satisfying for the moral absolutist, but since there is no justification outside of an omnipotent and omniscient God for such moral absolutism – and there is no convincing scientific evidence that such a God exists – then provisional ethics and provisional justice are the best we can do.”[3]

“[S]ince there is no justification outside of an omnipotent and omniscient God for such moral absolutism… …then provisional ethics and provisional justice are the best we can do.”Michael Shermer
Curiously, Shermer has inadvertently provided us with support for the first two premises of the moral argument, even from his atheistic starting point. Think back to his definition of provisional ethics. “Moral principles are provisionally true of most people most of the time in most circumstances.” Forgive me if I remain skeptical as to whether Shermer actually believes this. As unpleasant as it seems, allow your mind to consider some horrendous acts of evil. For example, think about the horrors of child abuse or the raping and murder of women; or consider stealing people from their homes and forcing them into sexual servitude. Are these types of heinous acts only provisionally wrong? Are they only abhorrent for most people in most places in most circumstances? Of course not! And I am confident that Shermer would wholeheartedly agree. The problem for him is that this lands us back in the realm of moral absolutes and we have already heard Shermer admit that moral absolutes only exist in a world where God exists.

Unwittingly, Michael Shermer has provided us support for the first two premises of the moral argument, from which the conclusion necessarily and inescapably follows. Though I disagree with Shermer that there is no scientific evidence for God’s existence, and though I disagree with any epistemology that would restrict justified true belief (that is, knowledge) to what science alone can show us (a self-defeating endeavour), I think there is also moral evidence for the existence of God. And, based on his own writings, Shermer should agree.


[1] Shermer distinguishes between morality and ethics, but he also uses these terms interchangeable in this chapter.

[2] Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: Why people Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, p179

[3] p179


About the Author

Chris Price

Chris Price is the lead pastor at Calvary Baptist church and the author of Suffering with God, published by Apologetics Canada. He lives in Port Coquitlam, B.C. with his beautiful wife Diandra and his two children Kaeden and Mila.

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  1. Pingback: A Castle Floating in the Clouds: Harm-based Morality without God? - Apologetics Canada

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