What is morality? Where does it come from? How do we know what is right and wrong, and do we know the difference in what we have to do, and what we ought to do? Is there a standard outside of us to guide us, or does each individual, each culture, each society, decide on what is right and what is wrong? How does an amoral universe through non-moral processes end up with a moral framework? A serious question to the materialist.
The word morality comes from the Latin word, moralitas, literally meaning manner, character, or proper behavior. It is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are distinguished as proper (right) and those that are improper (wrong).1
Everyone, including materialists, atheists, everyone, appeal to a moral standard. But is this moral standard objective, in other words, transcended, outside of our material brain, or is it subjective, that is, a product of an evolutionary progress within us, within our brains? What are the implications if it is not objective but subjective and no objective moral standard outside of the human brain exists? Would the moral arguments then be about preferences that are relative to multiple factors? Does objective morality make more sense than moral subjectivism and moral relativism? What are the implications if moral values are subjective and depend on personal, cultural, and/or societal opinion?
Atheist and founder of The Skeptics Society Michael Schirmer explains objective moral values; ‘Just ask the question to the person, the victim, involved. Do you want pain? Do you want to be a slave? Do you want to be sexually abused? Do you want to be lied to? ‘No’ – that is what is morally right. Do you want to be saved when drowning? ‘Yes’ – that is what is morally right.’ However, it still depends on an individual’s opinion, still subjective and not universally right or wrong. On the question ‘Do you want pain?’, different answers might be possible ‘Will it make me a better person?’ ‘Will I have a better understanding of the world?’ ‘Will it benefit others more than me?’ ‘Yes’, might depend on the possible meaning or purpose of the pain’. If it is untrue in one area of moral questions, then it is not universally true and cannot be objective but still subjective to an opinion.
It is important to bear in mind that the moral argument pertains to the ultimate source of objective moral values and duties (moral ontology; ontology the study of “being,” i.e., what it means for something to “be” or “exist.”) and not how we know what is moral or immoral (moral epistemology) and not ‘what we mean’ by good/bad or right/wrong (moral semantics). The theistic ethicist maintains that moral values are grounded in the character and nature of God. In other words that objective morality exists in God’s existence – moral ontology.
Objective morality implicates a moral standard outside of us and that implicates a transcendent lawgiver. One can be good, moral, without believing in God, but not without God. How come? If there is no God, there is no basis for objective good or bad, right or wrong, it is just an opinion. Atheists can be moral but cannot justify their morality as there is no standard to measure right and wrong for the atheist. Right and wrong are subjective being determined by individual feelings and opinions. Even cultural and societal opinion is reduced to human opinion. But then whose opinion; Mother Theresa’s of Hitler’s opinion? If one would argue that a culture or society determines its own moral values consider a religious movement that believes and accepts that female circumcision is justifiable and the proper thing to do in their society, does that make it right? We all have a sense of right and wrong and a person does not have to believe in God to be a good person. This is more of an objection of epistemology, or how we know something. The atheist can know morality, it is written on all hearts, or in our genes if you will, but the atheist cannot justify or provide logical grounds for it.
C.S. Lewis ‘A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.’ We need a straight line, an objective reference point. God’s nature provides that objective reference point for moral values, the standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. It is not what God says is good that makes something good or because of what He wills, but because He is good. Good is what conforms to His nature, to His character, to who and what He is. And if the atheist would claim that God is not good, immoral, for, for example, demanding the ‘genocide of the Canaanites’ I would refer to Five questions every Christian should be able to answer | @Alisa Childers – question 2, at 2:18 – 3:30
Philosopher William Lane Craig puts it this way: “Duty arises in response to an imperative from a competent authority. For example, if some random persons were to tell me to pull my car over, I would have absolutely no legal obligation to do so. But if a policeman were to issue such a command, I’d have a legal obligation to obey. The difference in the two cases lies in the persons who issued the commands: one is qualified to do so, while the other is not.” In other words, God’s standard versus human opinion.
With no God, there is no reference point of perfection, and we are left with one person’s viewpoint against another, that ‘random person who tried to pull me over’, which is no more valid than anyone else’s viewpoint, a morality that is subjective, and not objective. William Lane Craig puts it this way: It’s like a preference for strawberry ice cream, the preferences in the subject, not the object. So, it doesn’t apply to other people. In the same way, subjective morality applies only to the subject, it’s not valid or binding for anyone else and there can be no evil and no good – it is just an opinion. But if there is something like an absolute ‘right’ we could reasonably expect that there should be an absolute wrong. So, for right and wrong to exist there must be something ‘right’, something perfectly right, that we can use as a standard to measure right and wrong against. God has expressed His moral nature to us as commands, the basis for moral duties. Something is not good just because God ‘wills’ it, or God ‘wills’ something because it is good. God ‘wills’ something because He is good. Moral action conforms to God’s nature and the more it conforms to His nature, the better it is. If atheism is true, there is no ultimate standard and there can be no moral obligations or duties. According to atheism humans are just accidents of nature, highly evolved animals but animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse, it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behavior in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong.
This is a major difference between man and animal. An animal cannot think about his thoughts, cannot be introspective. And if a being cannot think about its thoughts, it cannot be held responsible for moral or immoral thoughts and actions. Animals cannot be moral or immoral. Humans have thoughts and can think, ponder, these thoughts and experience guilt and other moral feelings whilst thinking about the thoughts or actions. And therefore, can be held morally responsible. But to what standard? And the question, ‘what is it that is good and what is it that is wrong’ if only relative to opinion? Is it real?
The problem is that good and bad, right and wrong do exist. Just as our sense experiences convince us that the physical world is objectively real, our immoral experiences convince us that moral values are objectively real. Each one of us makes moral judgments and decisions every day, ranging from opening the door for someone to helping someone who just got in a car wreck. Every time you say ‘hey that’s not fair, that’s wrong, that’s an injustice’ you affirm you believe in the existence of objective morals and call upon these standards. We know child abuse, racial discrimination, and terrorism are wrong for everybody, always. Is this just a personal preference, just an opinion? No, a man who says it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2 + 2 = 5. Moral intuition naturally rises to the surface when allowed to, when subjective feelings are overridden by emotions.
Objective morality means that moral statements like “murder is bad” are independent of the person saying it. Objective morality means that there is a standard of morality that transcends human opinions and judgments. Like mathematics. What your opinion is on 4+6=10 is irrelevant to the fact; it is also irrelevant of human thoughts about it is. It exists outside of the human brain. It would still be true even if there were no humans. Morals are not invented, they are discovered. Like mathematics.
What this all amounts to then, is a moral argument for the existence of God. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist, but objective moral values and duties do exist, therefore God exists. Atheism fails to provide the foundation for the moral reality every one of us experiences every day.
Humans, being shaped in the image of God, have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. It is not at all clear how the atheist, except at the expense of moral realism, can maintain an objective standard of ethics without such a being as God as his ontological foundation.
Recognition to Willian Lane Graig for many of the ideas expressed in this video.
My next discussion will be on subjective morality, relativism, and the implication of such a view.
- Long, A. A.; Sedley, D. N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers: Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 366–67. ISBN 978-0521275569.