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’.
Let me illustrate the importance of this knowledge by relating an incident about a well-known internet atheist. You’ve heard of Holocaust deniers, right—people who deny that the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis took place during the second world war? This abhorrent view is usually associated with neo-Nazi racists, who seem to want to absolve Nazis and other racists of the responsibility and guilt that comes with the slaughter of so many human beings. But imagine people who accept the historical reality of the Holocaust, yet deny that it was objectively, morally wrong!! Surely there are no such people! Think again.
Consider Matt Dillahunty, an outspoken atheist who, when asked to condemn the Holocaust as objectively wrong, surprisingly, refuses to do it! In response to this question by his debating opponent, David Robertson, “Is it a fact that Dachau (a concentration camp) was morally wrong?”, Dillahunty professed “I don’t know.” Earlier in the dialogue, he had stated that there is no middle ground between believing and not believing. So it follows, that in the same way that he says he is not convinced that there is a God, he is also not convinced that the Holocaust was morally wrong!
Since according to him, there is no middle ground, he either believes that the Holocaust was immoral or he doesn’t believe it was immoral. To say “I don’t know” is to try and take a middle ground that doesn’t exist according to his own epistemology! But it doesn’t really help him, because by his own admission ‘he doesn’t believe that the Holocaust was morally wrong’.
To be fair, maybe he was just trying to be consistent with his atheism. Dillahunty’s response is consistent with his view that there is not enough evidence that God exists, and therefore there is also not enough evidence that objective moral obligations do exist. Dillahunty’s atheism doesn’t allow him to condemn obvious atrocities like killing 6 million Jews as objectively wrong.
I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these two views is worse, the Holocaust denier or the objective morality denier—the view that denies a historical fact in order to absolve themselves of responsibility; or the view that accepts the historical fact that mass murder has taken place, yet refuses or is unable to admit that anything objectively morally wrong has occurred. It is clear to me, at least, that denying the wickedness of the Holocaust is much worse than even denying the Holocaust occurred, as appalling as that is.
If you really think that Dillahunty’s view is not at least as morally reprehensible, and likely more so than being a Holocaust denier, tell that to someone who lost family in the Holocaust? Tell them that you believe the Holocaust happened, but that you can’t say that it was really wrong!
This leads to a second question: Which is worse—the inconsistent atheist who accepts that objective moral obligations exist (because of his direct awareness of them), or the consistent atheist who denies that objective moral obligations exist (who ignores his direct awareness of them)?
My response to someone like Dillahunty would be to congratulate him for being aware of, and trying to obey his intellectual duty/obligation to be consistent in his epistemology. But I also would ask, “how can you not also be aware and try to obey your moral obligations? In fact, your attempt to be consistent in your intellectual life is itself an example of following a moral imperative—to be honest with yourself and others, clearly a moral issue as well as intellectual. The epistemological imperatives flow from moral imperatives.”
Dillahunty should be directly aware of the objective truth of numerous moral facts like the immorality of the Holocaust. And this should push him to be sceptical of his belief that there is not enough evidence for God, and see more clearly the connection between the existence of God and the existence of objective moral facts like the Holocaust was morally wrong, which I am speculating he would like to be able to affirm.
What is the proper response to recognizing that a world without God leaves us without objective morality? Atheists like Bertrand Russell, most Existentialists, and many other atheists famously respond with challenges to be brave and courageous in the face of an ultimately meaningless, purposeless, amoral universe.
Russell writes of the courage required in a universe without purpose, meaning, good and evil, and right and wrong,
“… all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.
… Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way”.1
Albert Camus declares the absurd courage of choosing to live, “one needs more courage to live than to kill oneself”. It is heroic, in his view, to cope with the absurdity of life and the universe.
In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre claims “Life has no meaning a priori … it is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose”. Since there is no God, and thus no good or evil, one must have the courage (authenticity) to choose to act, accept responsibility and assume the consequences. Man should not regret what he has done. An act is an act.2
But this strikes me as false bravado, pretending to be strong and noble in dire circumstances when the proper response ought to be that there is something downright horrifying about a worldview that entails that the holocaust, rape, racism and torture are not really objectively morally wrong! Being ‘undaunted and fearless’ in the absence of objective moral values (as well as ultimate meaning and purpose), is actually a spineless, cowardly response, hiding one’s head in the sand, giving in to what is fashionable and deflecting from the obvious moral truth that is all around and in us.
Ultimately, it is playing a game of “let’s pretend”—let’s pretend that there is no God, no good or evil, right or wrong when we know full well it is objectively morally wrong to torture toddlers for sport!!
True bravery would be admitting that there must be something really wrong about saying nothing is really wrong—or really right! And none of us really live like this in day-to-day life anyway. The moral relativist doesn’t live like a moral relativist. The moral relativist makes moral judgments all the time when they see injustice and moral atrocities taking place, especially if these injustices and atrocities are aimed at them and their loved ones.
The truly valiant and daring thing to do is to resist and defy the current infatuation with moral relativism and affirm what you know deep down, through direct awareness, that torturing toddlers for sport, rape, genocide, racism, denial of basic human rights, and the like are objectively wrong.
True bravery would be admitting that there must be something really wrong about saying nothing is really wrong—or really right.
Once we affirm our knowledge of objective moral obligations, the second step is to deal with the question of foundations. What grounds these objective moral obligations? Since a materialistic, godless universe could not ground them, then maybe I should reconsider whether the universe is godless! Maybe I should revisit the issue of God’s existence!
This is something that Russell, Sartre, and Camus did not really do. They merely accepted that philosophy and science since the Enlightenment had successfully eliminated God from the picture, and built their worldviews on that “fact”. But in doing so they also eliminated their ability to recognize that objective moral obligations do exist!
Consider these three propositions:
- If God does not exist, then objective moral values and obligations do not exist.
- God does not exist.
- Therefore, objective moral values and obligations do not exist.
But this modus ponens3 version of these premises can just as easily be re-written in the _modus tollens_4 version as:
- If God does not exist, then objective moral values and obligations do not exist.
- Objective moral values and obligations do exist
- Therefore, God exists.
It all comes down to whether the case for (2.) “God does not exist” is stronger than the case for (5.) “Objective moral obligations do exist”. I for one have no problem knowing that I am more certain or confident that the latter is true than the former!! If you too are more confident that torturing toddlers for sport is objectively morally wrong, than you are that God does not exist, then you too should accept the modus tollens version of the argument (4-6).
Our direct awareness of some moral truths warrants our 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 their 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 behaviors 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.”5
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.”6 “... we must conclude that … Darwinian ethics … [positively] excludes the objectivist approach?”7
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.
As we saw above, a formal 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.8
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.
- Bertrand Russell. The Free Man's Worship. https://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/br-fmw.html.
- In the spring of 1980, a month before Sartre’s death, Le Nouvel Observateur published the following quote by Sartre, “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.” Although not exactly a deathbed conversion, Sartre’s gradual change in his views was confirmed by Simone de Beauvoir, his colleague, friend and lover, who relayed an almost exact quote from Sartre from 1974. [BEAUVOIR, Simone de (1981) The farewell ceremony; followed by Interviews with Jean-Paul Sartre, August-September 1974. [Paris]: Gallimard, p. 551.] See the following for more information: https://bridgesandtangents.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/sartres-faith/, https://bridgesandtangents.wordpress.com/2010/07/31/sartres-death-bed-conversion/, https://dieumajoie.blogspot.com/2014/10/la-conversion-de-jean-paul-sartre.html
- modus ponens is a rule of inference: If P implies Q, and P is true, Then Q must also be true.
- modus tollens is a rule of inference: If P implies Q, and Q is not true, Then P is also not true.
- W.L. Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, David C. Cook, 2010, p. 132.
- M. Ruse “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.
- modus tollens
Revised October 2021, copyright 2021 Michael Horner. Used by permission.
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