In the post How Do We Know that Objective Right & Wrong Exists?, I have argued for our intuitive ability to directly experience some moral truths through our moral sense. All moral reasoning begins with intuitions – reflective, considered intuitions. Philosophers call this ‘knowledge by acquaintance’.
This direct awareness of some moral truths warrants us to claim to know that ‘objective moral values and obligations exist’. We know some actions are objectively wrong even if we are unable to discern the rightness or wrongness of every action. The fact that we may not be able to know the rightness or wrongness of every action does not undermine the fact that we do know there are some objective moral values. This can then function as a premise in a moral argument for God’s existence for us and for anyone who has this experience. Of course, the question is now “What is the best explanation for the existence of these objective moral values and obligations?”
If God does not exist, objective moral values and obligations would not exist. Morality would only be a matter of taste, of individual or cultural opinion. But this would mean that grading papers on the basis of the color of its folder, abusing a child, raping someone, torturing babies for fun are not really objectively wrong, and are only a matter of opinion! How likely is it, though, that these behaviours are not really objectively wrong? Can you live with this conclusion? Our deepest intuitions inform us that these actions are horribly wrong.
By ‘objective’ we mean independent of opinion, just like 2 + 2 = 4 is objectively true even if everyone in the world disagreed. Despite many people’s claims to being relativists, most live as if they do believe in objective moral values and obligations. The judgments we make when ourselves and others are unjustly treated, reveal what we really believe about morality, regardless of what we say we believe. We believe that the Holocaust, slavery, raping little girls, or torturing toddlers for fun are moral abominations, not just a flouting of social conventions or personal dislikes. And we think everyone else should agree.
If someone said, “Well you guys might think that torturing toddlers is morally wrong but me and my buddies think it’s great sport,” we would not conclude that torturing toddlers for sport is not really wrong after all. Rather, we would draw the conclusion that there is something wrong with these guys. They are not functioning properly! If they were functioning properly they would recognize how morally reprehensible this is. People who do not think actions like this are wrong, we rightly call psychopaths! We know some actions are objectively wrong regardless of someone disagreeing.
However, if there is no God it is difficult to see how there could be any objective moral values and obligations. There would be no objective foundation--any universal standard for good and evil, and right or wrong. How do you get ethics from only different arrangements of space, time, matter, and energy? A purely materialistic universe would be morally indifferent. We would have only individual or cultural opinions, but no objectively binding moral obligations!
Some have suggested that we can provide an objective foundation for morality without appealing to God. Morality has just evolved over the centuries they propose, because it promotes human flourishing and survival. Whatever promotes human flourishing and survival is good. Whatever doesn’t promote human flourishing and survival is bad. That is all we need for objectivity in morality, it is claimed. There is no need for God.
But if God does not exist, the critical assumption that ‘human beings have moral worth’ is not available. Humans, like everything else in the universe, would be just accidental arrangements of atoms, and therefore, we could not justifiably declare that humans are objectively valuable. Remove God from consideration, and all that is left is “... an apelike creature on a speck of solar dust beset with delusions of grandeur.”1
Why think the morality of the human species, above all other species, is objectively binding rather than just our opinion? Moral judgments would be just subjective - merely expressions of personal tastes. Or, they might be just social conventions, pragmatic suggestions for survival that society has agreed upon so that people can live together without chaos. But in neither case would they be objectively binding moral obligations. Maybe rape is not socially advantageous and over time has become forbidden, but this does nothing to prove that rape is really objectively wrong!
Atheist philosopher of science, Michael Ruse drives the point home that we cannot get objective morality from evolutionary processes,
“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness is of biological worth… Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory… Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is illusory.”2 “... we must conclude that … Darwinian ethics … [positively] excludes the objectivist approach?”3
If morality evolved because it produced survival benefits, we would not have objective moral values and obligations. Once we’ve figured out that our feeling of morality with regard to say, rape, is just a biological adaptation inculcated into us over millions of years, then we would have no reason to regard rape as objectively wrong anymore.
This is the choice before us - if you are confident that atheism/naturalism is true, it seems you must give up the reality of objective moral values & obligations, and affirm that the Holocaust, slavery, raping children, and torturing toddlers for sport are not really wrong! But if you are confident that the Holocaust, slavery, raping children, or torturing toddlers for sport are really, objectively wrong, then logically you must give up atheism/naturalism.
Please do not misunderstand me. This is not to say that atheists can't be moral - just that if there is no God, there would be no grounds for the objective morals we all believe in – atheists and theists alike. The problem here is not the absence of belief in God but the absence of God.
Since we know that objective moral values & obligations do exist, and since they cannot exist without God, it follows that God exists. If the God of classical theism exists, then an objective foundation for morality would exist. God’s holy and good nature would be the objective standard, and God’s divine commands to us would flow necessarily from his moral nature.
In addition to presenting a serious problem for atheism/naturalism, these insights provide a sound argument for theism. The God hypothesis provides a foundation for our deepest moral intuitions. Formally, a moral argument for God’s existence could go as follows:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and obligations do not exist.
- Objective moral values and obligations do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Since we know that objective moral values and obligations do exist, and since they cannot exist without God, it follows that God exists.4
If the God of classical theism exists, an objective foundation for morality would also exist. God’s holy and good nature provides a foundation for the moral values which the atheist just has to accept by faith.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could know the Good and Holy God? We can! Jesus showed us the righteousness of God. ”If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” he said. He has provided the way for us to come into a relationship with the Good and Holy God by paying the just penalty on the cross for each of our moral failures which alienate us from God. We need to receive his free gift of forgiveness by faith. It is by knowing God personally through Jesus that we can not only be forgiven, but transformed as we surrender to his love and trust him daily with our lives.
- W.L. Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, David C. Cook, 2010, p. 132.
- “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics”, in The Darwinian Paradigm, Routledge, 1989, pp. 262-269
- M. Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986) and reprinted (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998); 254.
- This conclusion follows logically according to the rule of inference called modus tollens which takes the form of “If P, then Q. Not Q. Therefore, not P.“
copyright 2021 Michael Horner. Used by permission.
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