“I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidean understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level – but that’s only Euclidean nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it!” Ivan Karamazov, from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821-1881) The Brothers Karamazov.
In this post I will not be presenting/defending the moral argument due to a priority of my initial concern, which is to examine what are in my opinion the most considerable objections to supposing that morality is in some way dependent upon God. To be clear however, I do not concur with the philosophers that I present in this analysis, but I do use said philosophers because I believe that the discussion they bring to the table is of considerable merit with regards to conversation of theism and [its relation to] morality.
Furthermore, since the moral argument has no one single interpretation of the (what I take to be, anyway) general theistic maxim “Morality is dependent upon God,” I will be presenting two particular criticisms of different versions of the moral argument. So, for example, some critics address the more epistemological claim(s) of the moral argument (i.e., our knowledge of moral facts is from God) while others may address the ontological claim(s) (i.e., morality exists because of God). I am not restricting myself to those mere two categories but will examine what are in my opinion legitimate concerns of the overall conversation.
Michael Martin and The Two Versions
It is helpful for our purposes to first examine notable atheist philosopher Michael Martin’s discussion on the moral argument because he briefly outlines four major versions of the moral argument that can good for our personal frame of reference. The four versions he examines are as follows:
- (1) “If people did not believe that a theistic God existed, they would not be moral or, at least they would be less moral than they are now” .
- (2) “The objectivity of the moral law presumes that God exists” .
- (3) “[O]ur conscience provides us not only with a sense of right and wrong but with a call to duty that enforces our moral sense… [therefore], in order to explain the phenomenon of conscience it is necessary to postulate God” .
- (4) “[T]he highest good includes moral virtue and happiness as the appropriate reward of virtue… [H]owever… this highest good cannot be realized unless there is “a supreme cause of nature” that has the power to bring about a harmony between happiness and virtue. Thus God is necessary postulate of practical reason…” 
Due to limits in time/space, I will not be addressing arguments (3) and (4) but rather (1) and (2) since I take them to be more defensible, well-known claims . Martin considers argument (1) to be based on a dubious factual premise, saying that “[t]here is no reason to suppose that people would be less moral if they did not believe in God than if they did” . For instance, someone who may be arguing that religion and morality must in some way be connected in order for one to be a moral person could be arguing any one of the following theses:
- (a) It is impossible to have a high moral character without belief in God.
- (b) It is more probable than not that a person without a belief in God will not have a high moral character.
- (c) It is more probable that a person without a belief in God will not have a high moral character than that a person with a belief in God will.
Thesis (1) according to Martin seems to be demonstrably false: “Jainists are atheists, yet they follow a strict ethical code that forbids injuring any living creature. David Hume has been described as the saintly infidel; Percy Shelley, who was an atheist, has been described as driven by principles and high ideals, and his life has been characterized as one of generosity and integrity” . A further point would be to ask whether or not “X is a person of high moral character” entails “X believes in God.” If so, then no possible evidence could refute (a) since “high moral character” is not normally understood with respect to one’s belief in God, thus “the onus to say what possible evidence could refute (a) is on the theist” .
Martin even more so argues that (b) is not something that could necessarily be defensible given the fact that an atheist could concede to it – i.e., that “[h]e or she could maintain that high moral character is a rare trait, one that is distributed approximately the same low rate of frequency among theists and atheists alike” . And finally, even if (c) were true we still cannot hold to the conclusion that there is some causal relation between nonbelief in God and low moral character. To summarize the critique of (c), “We do not even know if (c) is true, let alone, if it is, why it is.”
Lastly, with respect to argument to argument (2), Martin takes it to be a sort of cosmological argument – the cause of objective moral facts must be God. The argument is as follows:
- (1) If morality is objective and absolute, then God exists.
- (2) Morality is objective and absolute.
- (3) Therefore, God exists.
Although Martin aims a critique at premise (2), I am more interested in his discussion on premise (1). To quote him a length:
The first premise is unsupported. [It has not been] shown that ethical statements can only be objective and absolute given the presumption of theism. There have been various attempts to construct a naturalistic foundation of ethics that is both objective and absolute. Furthermore. . . even if the objective moral facts would call for some supernatural explanation, it would not entail theism. Alternative explanations are possible, including polytheism. 
Louise Antony and the Critique of Accountability
Philosopher Louise Antony in her essay “The Failure of Moral Arguments”  aims her critique towards William Lane Craig’s moral argument that suggests objective moral values and duties do not exist under what Craig calls ‘the atheistic view’. His argument can be stated as follows:
- (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.
Although Craig is making a case using theistic metaethics and accountability (with regards to moral obligation), Antony argues that his case is nonetheless “ultimately unsuccessful.” Antony critiques Craig’s argument on the grounds that if one were to suggest that “there would be no moral value unless virtue was certain to be rewarded and vice punished is tantamount to a reduction of moral value to prudential value” . For example of what she means here, consider Craig’s brief comment:
Even if there were objective moral values and duties under naturalism, they are irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference whether one lives as a Stalin or as a saint. 
Antony faults this view as being a sort of psychological egoist where Craig says “makes no difference” but must actually mean “makes no difference to me.” To quote Antony at length:
[A]ccording to Craig, if there is no guarantee that it will somehow someday accrue to one’s benefit, “sacrifice for another person is just stupid.” I assume that “stupid” here means “irrational.” But rationality is a matter of appropriately matching actions to ends, of choosing to do that which maximizes the likelihood of achieving one’s ends without sacrificing more important ends. In that case, sacrifice would be stupid only if there were no possible ends that a person could posses that would rationalize incurring a cost to herself. The only reason to think that persons could not possess such ends is if one though, with the egoist, that all ends are ultimately self-regarding. 
Antony thence proceeds to qualify her position from here, but a brief summary of her position would be to say that although accountability may indeed be a necessary condition for the existence of moral obligation, it is nonetheless an insufficient one. As she claims, “There is more that a theistic metaethics must say, and that is, what it is that makes God good” .
Though there are of course many factors to consider in the overall conversation , the question of morality’s relationship with the existence of God is nonetheless a very crucial one. Whether we take the ontological route, the epistemological route, or even the “high moral character” route (which I hope that we don’t), it’s important to have a collective account of how our moral values and duties have their grounding in the existence of God. As Paul Copan has once nicely written:
The worldview favoring a robust moral world is theism, in which a good, rational, supremely aware Creator makes human beings in his image. God’s existence secures the existence of genuine value and rights in the contingent world, easily accounting for human dignity, rights, moral responsibility. . . and duties. On naturalism, however, why think that morally responsible, valuable beings would be the product of mindless, nonrational, physical, valueless, nonconscious processes? Unlike theism, naturalism’s context can’t anticipate the emergence of value. 
-  Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press: 1990) p. 212
-  Ibid., p. 213
-  Ibid., p. 214
-  Ibid., p. 215
-  Argument (3) was taken from John Henry Newman’s The Grammar of Assent, which is the argument Martin is criticizing here. To see Martin’s full critique, see Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, pp. 214-215. Argument (4) is Immanuel Kant’s moral argument, which I personally don’t see as a highly defensible argument although I am open to seeing its merit. To see Martin’s critique of Kant’s argument, see p. 215.
-  Ibid., pp. 212-213
-  Ibid., pp. 5-6
-  Ibid., p. 6
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 214
-  Louise Antony, “The Failure of Moral Arguments,” Debating Christian Theism, ed. J.P. Moreland, Chad Meister and Khaldoun A. Sweis (Oxford University Press: 2013) pp. 101-115
-  Ibid., p. 108
-  William Lane Craig, “Theological Foundations,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-indispensability-of-theological-meta-ethical-foundations-for-morality
-  Antony (2013) p. 109
-  Ibid., p. 110 – emphasis Antony’s.
-  Although I wasn’t able to address them here, George Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God (1979), Paul Copan’s essays in To Everyone An Answer (2004) and Debating Christian Theism (2013), Mark Linville’s essay on the moral argument in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2012), Kai Nielsen’s Ethics Without God (1990) and C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligation (2013) are all helpful resources with respect to the discussion I’ve attempted to address here.
-  Paul Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” Debating Christian Theism (2013) p. 87