Neil Shenvi lectures on the moral argument and moral relativism

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

This lecture is composed of 5 separate video clips.

Part 1 of 5:

Part 2 of 5:

Part 3 of 5:

Part 4 of 5:

Part 5 of 5:

Neil Shenvi has also written an article about it on his apologetics web page.


Do objective moral values exist? Many people in our culture today would say that they do not. Morality, says the moral relativist, is constructed by individuals or societies; what is moral for you might not be moral for me. In contrast, the claim of moral realism is that there are objective moral values which specify concepts like good and evil, right and wrong, and which transcend cultures and individuals. To my surprise, I found very little information on the Internet presenting evidence for moral realism, in spite of the fact that it is the majority position of academic philosophers. Although I do believe that we can have immediate personal knowledge through our conscience that objective moral values exist, I believe that there are also several pieces of objective evidence to support this position. Indeed, my claim is that we have many good reasons to believe that objective moral values exist and few -if any- reasons to believe that they do not exist.

In the first section of this essay I will explain what we mean by “objective moral values.” I will also emphasize the difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology, and between moral ontology and moral behavior. In the second section, I will present a positive case that objective moral values exist. I hope to show that there are many good reasons to accept the existence of objective moral values. In the third section, I will do something far less theoretical and far more personal; I will try to show that every one of us knows that objective moral values do exist but is surpressing this knowledge. And in the final section I will try to show why we are attracted to moral relativism despite its implausibility.


[L]et’s look at the five pieces of evidence that objective moral values exist. If objective moral values exist and we can intuitively perceive them, this hypothesis explains five pieces of empirical evidence

  1. Nearly universally across human cultures, there exist the same basic standards of morality. In addition, there exist in all cultures truly altrustic acts which lead to no personal or genetic benefit.
  2. The majority of people who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists.
  3. There exists a nearly universal human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong.
  4. The majority of philosophers recognize the existence of objective moral facts.
  5. Many naturalists (like Sam Harris or Shelley Kagan) affirm the existence of objective moral facts, despite the problems inherent in grounding these facts in the natural world.

And more:

As I said in the first section, the basic premise of moral relativism is that there is no objective standard of moral behavior. All moral behavior is relative to individual persons or cultures; what is “good” or “bad” depends on the person, on the place and time, on the community, and on the culture. No action and no behavior can rightly be termed “bad” or “good” without qualification. Actions are only “good to you” or “bad to you”, “good to this culture” or “bad to this culture.” In the previous section, I tried to show that –based on the evidence– belief in moral relativism is unwarranted. It is theoretically possible to find ways around the evidence presented above, but each of these pieces of evidence seems to clearly point to the existence of objective moral values. In this secion, I will not attempt to show that belief in moral relativism is unwarranted; rather, I will try to show that no one actually believes in moral relativism. To do so, I will ask four questions. Each of them centers around a “thought experiment,” a highly hypothetical situtation which probes our reactions to admittedly unlikely circumstances. I urge the reader to take these questions very seriously.

The moral argument is probably the most intuitive and accessible argument for theism, with the possible exception of the cosmological argument.

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