Perhaps you have heard the story about a philosophy student who wrote a research paper arguing that morality is subjective — that there are no objective moral values. Judged by its research, scholarship, documentation, and argumentation, it was easily an ‘A’ paper. The professor, however, took one look at it, pulled out his red felt pen and wrote: " ‘F’ — I do not like blue covers." When the student got his paper back, he stormed into the professor's office, "This is not fair! This is not just! I shouldn't be graded on the color of my cover, but the content of my paper!"
The professor asked if the student was referring to the paper which argued that there are no objective moral values such as fairness and justice. The student replied, "Yes, yes, that's the one!" The professor responded, "Well... I do not like blue covers. The grade will remain an 'F."' Suddenly the student realized that he did believe in objective moral values like fairness and justice, and he was expecting them to be applied to his situation right then and there.1
While it is very easy to say there are no objective moral obligations, it is much more difficult to live as if there are none. One of the more popular arguments for God’s existence these days is the moral argument. There are different ways to present it, but I essentially try to help people see that objective moral values and obligations do exist, and then argue that God is the best explanation for their existence.
Most surveys report that between 60% to 85% of people think morality is relative to individual or cultural opinion. However, I think these numbers are soft, and many people are not as ‘morally relativistic’ as they think they are. I find it a very interesting exercise to try and help people directly experience the reality of objective moral values and obligations.
I’ve found that if I bring up examples of obvious moral atrocities, most people recognize the objective moral wrongness of these actions, despite their avowed relativism. People do recognize that the Nazis’ Holocaust, raping little girls, and torturing toddlers for sport are not just objectively wrong, but are morally reprehensible and that everyone should agree with that assessment.
For the minority who still resist admitting the existence of objective moral truth, I just personalize the examples to their lives. “What if the little girl being raped and murdered was your little sister or daughter – has the perpetrator done anything morally wrong?” Very few people can avoid concluding that something objectively and horribly wrong has taken place, and not just that it was something that they didn’t like or that our culture frowns upon. The examples do not always have to be so graphic either, as the ‘Blue Folder’ story usually makes clear. This story resonates with current students who immediately recognize the injustice of the professor’s actions.
Even though I have found that the vast majority of the people with whom I share these examples acknowledge the objectivity of moral values and obligations, there are still some holdouts, like the student who asked me, “How do you know objective moral values and obligations exist?” He added, “You haven’t proved it. You are just manipulating people’s emotions with these examples, and this conclusion is based on nothing more than feelings, not evidence!”
Even though most people respond to examples of horrible violations of moral values by recognizing the objective reality of those values, this young man was still not buying it. He thought that I was trying to ‘pull a fast one’ – that some sleight of hand was taking place.
Well, he had a point. What he correctly perceived is that I have not provided any arguments or evidence for the claim that objective moral values and obligations exist. At the heart of the matter is the fact that he cannot accept the idea that someone could know something to be true without there being some empirical evidence in support of the belief.
There are probably elements of three ideologies behind his response: empiricism, scientism, and evidentialism. You will likely be on familiar terms with these three ‘isms’ even if you aren’t familiar with their definitions. They are, to a large degree, just part of the cultural milieu in which we have been brought up.
Empiricism is the view that all knowledge is the result of sensory experience. According to this view, if what you claim to ‘know’ has not been sensed by one or more of your 5 senses, then you do not ‘know’.
Scientism is similar in that it claims that knowledge can only be obtained through the scientific method, which of course involves empirical observation.
Evidentialism is the view that one is justified in holding a belief only if one has good evidence for it.
I think that for most people brought up in the West, at least empiricism and evidentialism, and possibly scientism, are at the core of their epistemological assumptions – that is, they determine what one counts as knowledge. I have recently discovered that I have been influenced by these 3 ‘isms’ much more than I had previously realized.
And this is why I think some people find it difficult to accept that objective moral values and obligations exist in the absence of proof or evidence. When I ask them if torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong, I’m not providing empirical evidence. I’m merely trying to help people directly experience the moral truth at hand.
Rather than providing arguments or evidence, which I can and do on other occasions, I find it more persuasive for most people to directly experience the moral truth that, for example, torturing toddlers for sport is wrong.
The moral order of values is on a similar footing as the natural order of physical objects. Just as we assume the reality of the world of physical objects based on our sense experience, so too we assume the reality of the moral order based on our moral experience.
Philosopher W.L. Craig comments, “Philosophers who reflect on our moral experience see no more reason to distrust that experience than the experience of our five senses. I believe what my five senses tell me, that there is a world of physical objects out there. Similarly, in the absence of some reason to distrust my moral experience, I should accept what it tells me, that some things are objectively good or evil, right or wrong.”
Having been considerably conditioned by empiricism and evidentialism, I was quite surprised when I finally realized that I can and do gain knowledge of some moral truths apart from the use of my five physical senses. This is an example of what philosophers call knowledge by acquaintance. Our experience of the moral order through our moral sense is on a similar footing as our experience of physical objects through our physical senses. They are both a direct experience or awareness of reality.
Our experience of the moral order through our moral sense is on a similar footing as our experience of physical objects through our physical senses.
Now clearly, there is also a difference. Our physical senses all work with empirical data. Our moral sense doesn’t. For those of us brought up under the influence of empiricism and scientism, it can be difficult to accept that we can know anything that doesn’t involve empirical observation through our five physical senses, not to mention the existence of another sensory faculty, the moral sense.
But there is another faculty as well that we are all quite familiar with, that provides us with direct awareness of reality – our rational faculty. When you come across an argument in the form of modus ponens,
- If P then Q
- Therefore, Q
you know Q logically follows from the first two premises.
How do you know this? Not empirically. You experience the truth of the logical inference we call modus ponens directly! One requires no proof for modus ponens. You either get it or you don’t. If you don’t get it, typically an example or two will provide the needed clarity for you to have that “ah-ha” experience.
This is an example of your rational sense directly experiencing reality. This time it is a logical reality. Your rational sense is also able to directly experience the reality of basic mathematical truths like 2 + 2 = 4.
“But isn’t this just a ‘feeling’?”, like the student thought? And isn’t our alleged direct awareness through our moral sense, that torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong, also just a ‘feeling’? I don’t think so.
The idea that our experience of our rational and moral faculties is just a ‘feeling’ and therefore easily dismissed is confused. Think about your sense of sight – you have a sensation of a tree in front of you. It would be easy to call this experience of a sensation a ‘feeling’ but that would confuse it with an emotion which it is not. It is an experience of direct awareness.
When you experience the truth of the logical inference modus ponens, it would be easy to call this experience a ‘feeling’ but that would confuse it with an emotion which it is not. It is a direct awareness of a logical truth through our rational sense.
Likewise, when you are prompted to think about various examples of behaviour and are asked if they are morally good or evil, you directly experience the truth of many such examples: like torturing toddlers for sport [morally evil and wrong]. It would be easy to call this experience a ‘feeling’ but that would confuse it with an emotion which it is not. It is a direct awareness of a moral truth through our moral sense.
Even many atheist philosophers like Louise Antony do not have strong doubts about our ability to know objective moral truth. In a debate with W.L. Craig on the foundations of morality, she said, “Any argument for moral scepticism will be based upon premises which are less obvious than the existence of objective moral values themselves.” She recognizes the strength of our knowledge of moral values through direct awareness. Through direct awareness, we are warranted in claiming to know some moral truths.
This does not mean that we can never be wrong about our moral beliefs, but this is also the case with our direct awareness of the physical world. We are mistaken at times about what we think we are seeing. We think we see a bent stick in the water, when in fact the stick is straight - the bent stick is an illusion. But in both categories our beliefs obtained through direct awareness are prima facie justified, that is, justified in the absence of any defeaters of those beliefs.
When we claim to know that torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong because of our direct awareness of the injustice of the behavior, we are warranted in our claim to knowledge, unless or until a defeater of our belief arises. There is a philosophical term for this experience of direct awareness of reality. The term is intuition. I have avoided the word until now because some people tend to have a pejorative view of the term.
By intuition though, philosophers do not mean an irrational hunch or some popular notion like when one refers to a ‘woman’s intuition’. Here is how philosophers J.P. Moreland & W.L. Craig explicate the philosophical use of intuition in their excellent textbook, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (p. 422):
“The philosophical use of intuition does not mean a mere hunch or a prereflective expression of, say, a moral attitude… a common usage defines intuition as an immediate, direct awareness or acquaintance with something. Intuition is a mode of awareness — sensory, intellectual or otherwise — in which something seems or appears to be directly present to one's consciousness. For example, one can have a sensory intuition of a table or an intellectual intuition of a conceptual truth, for instance, that 2 + 2 = 4. Intuitions are not infallible, but they are prima facie justified. That is, if one carefully reflects on something, and a certain viewpoint intuitively seems to be true, then one is justified in believing that viewpoint in the absence of overriding counterarguments (which will ultimately rely on alternative intuitions). Furthermore, an appeal to intuition does not rule out the use of additional arguments that add further support to that appeal… Similarly, an appeal to intuition in ethics is not a claim to infallibility or a substitute for further arguments.
In ethics, appeals to intuition occur in four main areas. First, there are specific cases or judgments (e.g., Dr. Jones ought not to lie to the patient in room 10 tomorrow morning). Second, there are moral rules and principles (e.g. promises should be kept, persons ought to be respected). Third, there are general, normative theories (e.g., deontological theories are to be preferred to utilitarian theories or vice versa. Finally, there are background philosophical or religious factual beliefs (e.g., a human has a property of intrinsic value). Again, such appeals to intuition claim prima facie justification and do not rule out further argumentation. Appeals to reflective considered intuitions occur throughout one’s intellectual life, and ethics is no exception.”
Empiricist & evidentialist assumptions in our Western culture make it difficult for many of us to warm up to this idea of direct awareness of reality, especially in the moral realm. But I have found that despite these assumptions, when specific examples of morally abhorrent behavior are brought to their attention, most people’s moral intuitions are brought to the surface and they recognize that they do believe in objective moral values and obligations after all. Still, I find a small but often vocal minority of students that hear my presentation will continue to doubt that morality can be objective.
Some people get the wrong idea though about what I’m doing and think it is an appeal to a ‘majority is right’ type of argument. But this is a misunderstanding. I’m not claiming that since most people think torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong, that, therefore, makes it morally wrong. My approach is not only not the ‘majority is right’ argument; it is not even an argument at all.
I am not trying to ‘show’ or persuade people through evidence and argument. Rather I am employing a strategy to help people experience a direct awareness of the truth so that they will ‘know’ that torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong and that everyone should agree. But what about those who still disagree?
Not too long ago, I had a few particularly persistent questioners following a couple of lectures I gave on university campuses on arguments for the existence of God. Even though I gave three arguments, and two of them included some very interesting features about the early universe, almost all the questions were about the moral argument. In particular, they questioned how I know that objective moral values and obligations exist.
After prompting them to think about atrocities like the Holocaust, and Apartheid, and horrible actions like raping little girls or torturing toddlers for sport, these students still were not persuaded that objective moral values and obligations existed.
I decided to use an illustration. I said, “What if a bunch of guys walked into our lecture hall and said, ‘You people might think torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong but my buddies and I think it is great fun!’ How should we respond to that? Should we throw our hands up and conclude, ‘Oh, no, I guess morality is relative to subjective opinions after all?’
No, of course not. We should think that there is something wrong with those guys! They are not functioning properly. In fact, what do we call people who do not think torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong?” After a moment of silence, the answer came back from a few students – “Psychopaths!” “Right”, I said. “Anyone who claims torturing children for sport is not objectively wrong is not functioning properly morally. We rightly call someone like that a psychopath.”
That seemed to make a difference. The remaining few doubters seemed to realize that their choice was to accept that torturing toddlers for sport was an example of an objective moral value and obligation that was being violated, or to put themselves in the same moral category as psychopaths. My point all along of course was not that they were psychopaths, but that they weren’t relativists after all!
I don’t know for sure if they were fully persuaded, but I do know that their questions stopped. By the looks on their faces, I suspect that maybe their moral intuitions had finally broken through to the surface and they were beginning to recognize that they did believe in some objective moral values and obligations after all — especially that torturing toddlers for sport was morally wrong. There is a difference between knowing & showing something to be true. One can know something even if they cannot show it or prove it to be true.
This article has been about one part of the moral argument for God’s existence - the premise that objective moral values and obligations exist, and how we know (as opposed to show) this is the case. In the process, I have argued for our ability to directly experience some moral truths through our moral sense. This is counter to the empiricist assumptions of our culture, but I believe it is true nevertheless. Of course, the question is now “What is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and obligations?” One step at a time. See Can Objective Morality Exist Without God?
- Norman Geisler, "The Collapse of Modem Atheism” in Intellectuals Speak Out About God, edited by Roy Abraham Varghese, (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984), p.147.