Monday, September 20, 2010


  1. (Premise) If one has done a wrong, one ought to ask someone for forgiveness of it.
  2. (Premise) If God does not exist, there are some wrongs (e.g., the murder of someone who has no friends or relatives) that one cannot appropriately ask anyone for forgiveness of.
  3. (Premise) If one ought to do something, then one can appropriately do it.
  4. Therefore, if God does not exist, there are some things one ought to do but cannot appropriately do. (By 1 and 2)
  5. Therefore, God exists. (By 3 and 4)


Matt said...

Alex, this is really interesting. Here's some thoughts in response.

It seems that I can ask myself for forgiveness for a wrong I have done. So, I'd want to read premise (1) as compatible with the wrong-doer being identical to the person being asked for forgiveness. That also has consequences for premise (2). Even if, in your example, the murderer can't ask the victim or the victim's friends or relatives for forgiveness, he may still ask himself for forgiveness.

I suppose you could say, in response, that asking for self-forgiveness isn't sufficient for the cases you have in mind; one also ought to ask forgiveness of different people (victims, victims' families, etc.). If that's the case, your argument will still go through.

I wonder if that commits us to too much, though. If God exists, then in your example, the murderer can then ask forgiveness from God, whereas he could not do so if God did not exist. But whether or not God exists, he can’t ask forgiveness from the victim, the victim’s families, etc. [1] And we might think that that’s the crucial point, depending on how exactly we understand God’s relationship to morality. If the wrongs in question are not wrongs against God, then it might be a little unclear why asking forgiveness of God is appropriate. The point is that your argument might hinge on some substantive claims about what morality looks like if theism is true. That’s just an observation, not an objection, and I'm curious to hear more about how you're thinking about this argument.

I’d been thinking recently about the possibility of forgiveness in a non-theistic morality, so your post is very helpful.

[1] This might be controversial.

Matt said...

What about asking one's community or society for forgiveness? Most people don't do this, unless they're politicians, but it's another possibility to explore.
Also, maybe in cases where the victim cannot be asked for forgiveness, one ought instead work to honor the victim's memory, or advocate for better policing in order to reduce crimes like one's own, etc.

Joshua Huff said...

I suppose I'm skeptical that asking for forgiveness from God makes a difference in the case of a murder. For instance, all sin, in a traditionally-Christian view at least, has both a vertical and a horizontal element. Therefore, even if one addresses the vertical element, one hasn't addressed the horizontal element.

If I grant you your logic in the above example, then only a God who brings about a resurrection of the dead would exist, but many theologians and philosophers, even those who are theistic, do not accept that. What are your thoughts?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Asking society for forgiveness wouldn't help if one were on a desert island with a friend and had just murdered the friend.

A corollary of the argument is there is some kind of important dependence between the vertical and horizontal components of the sin. The Davidic Psalmist affirms this when he says to God "against You, You alone have I sinned." I don't know how best to make sense of this, but it does not appear to be an absurd sentiment, and it is certainly a part of the Christian tradition. So I am happy with just taking it to be a consequence of the argument.

Here are two thoughts about how to make sense of it.

When x is very closely related to y, it is appropriate to ask y for forgiveness for injuring x, especially when the injury is also a wrong against y. For instance, if x is y's baby. But God is very close to us all: we live and breathe and have our being in him.

Speculating, we might try to expand as follows: all that is valuable in our lives is a participation in God. To harm someone is to deprive them of some aspect of participation in God. In some important sense, God is the primary aggrieved party.

There are gaps here, but there is nothing wrong with a plausible argument leading to conclusions that one does not have a full independent defense of.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In regard to the closeness issue, note that it also appears appropriate sometimes to ask for the descendants of the aggrieved party for forgiveness.

Matt said...

Thanks for the follow-up, that's very helpful.

Jarrett Cooper said...

I'm a little late on this, but oh well.

My problem with the argument is the notion of something being wrong without God. If it were conclusively shown that God does not exist, then I think we would have to succumb to nihilism. The notion of right and wrong would go out the window. So, why the need to ask forgiveness for some wrong, when such things are void of any meaning?

Nightvid said...

The first premise should include, "if possible". And thus it is clearly a circular argument.

And without pre-supposing DCT, no one has demonstrated that morality requires a deity.