Moral Argument


A few weeks ago the famed atheist and philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, wrote a response in the Guardian to the question, What can Darwin teach us about morality?  Ruse’s multifaceted answer is accurate, intriguing, and at times, incoherent – but always and thoroughly enlightening about where atheistic and evolutionary thought leads. 

Ruse admits that without God “there are no grounds whatsoever for being good.”  Morality, he says, is just a matter of emotion and personal taste on the same level as “liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers.”  But he’s quick to point out that just because there are no grounds for being good, it doesn’t mean we should be bad.  While this is true insofar as it goes, it fails to answer the more important question: Why – in the absence of a moral law giver, and thus in the absence of any objective moral law – should anyone behave in ways traditionally thought to be “good” if and when it is in their own self-interest to do otherwise?  In the name of what should they deny their own impulses?  In the name of the Grand Sez Who?

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I just love Greg Koukl!  In his most recent issue of Solid Ground he provides a wonderful response to a challenge atheist Michael Shermer likes to lodge against theistic moral objectivists: “If there was no God, would you still be good?”   

Shermer expects an affirmative answer from his theist detractors.  If theists would be good even without God, he reasons, then God is not necessary for morality as the theist claims.  While this is a clever rhetorical device, it misses the point entirely.  The theist’s argument is not that one must believe in God to behave in ways people generally consider “good.”  Our argument is that if God does not exist, there is no such thing as “goodness” at all.  As an individual or as a culture we might prefer to help a grandmother cross the street as opposed to running her over with our car, but neither behavior is morally superior to the other.  All human acts are just molecules in motion, and the last I checked, neither molecules nor motion come in “good” and “bad” varieties.  Morality is not a quality of matter, but of mind.  

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William Lane Craig has written a “fairly” condensed article (30 pages) consisting of five arguments for God’s existence, and examines how the new atheists such as Richard Dawkins have responded to these arguments.  This is probably the most lay-accessible, condensed written treatment I have seen from Craig on this topic.  Highly recommended.  

You can read it in HTML, PDF, or at Scribd.

HT: Justin Taylor

Theists often offer the moral argument in support of God’s existence.  While the argument can take many forms, the essence of the argument is that objective moral values exist, and are best explained by the existence of a transcendent, personal being whose very nature is good.  The common response offered by atheists is that one need not believe in God to be moral and loving.  “After all,” they say, “I am a moral person and I don’t believe in God.  Surely, then, belief in God is not necessary for morality.”

There are two things amiss about this response.  First, it misconstrues the theist’s argument.  He is not arguing that one must believe in God to recognize moral truths (a claim about moral epistemology) or to behave morally, but rather that God must exist for there to even be such a thing as morality (a claim about moral ontology).  God’s existence is necessary to ground moral values in objective reality.  If there is no God, there can be no such thing as objective moral values.  We might choose to call certain behaviors “good” and certain behaviors “evil,” but such ascriptions are subjective determinations by human communities; i.e. they merely describe the beliefs and preferences of human subjects, not some object that exists transcendent to them.

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42-16341014To determine if someone believes morals are merely social constructs ask, “If no humans existed, would objective moral values exist?”  If they say “no” then they are moral constructivists.  If they say “yes” then they believe morals exist in some objective sense independent of the human mind and human culture.

If they do exist in some objective sense independent of the human mind and human culture, what exactly is their source?  God…maybe?!?!

“They don’t seem to realize that their moral outrage presupposes an objective moral standard that exists only if God exists. … In effect, they have to borrow from a theistic worldview in order to argue against it.  They have to sit in God’s lap to slap his face.”[1]–Frank Turek, speaking about atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.


[1]Frank Turek, “Sleeping with your Girlfriend”; available from http://townhall.com/columnists/FrankTurek/2009/03/02/sleeping_with_your_girlfriend; Internet; accessed 10 April 2009.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that all men recognize the existence of a universal moral law, even if they do not follow it.  How does he know this?  Because all men offer excuses.  When someone offers an excuse for their actions, they are admitting that they have violated some higher law, but think their violation is justified.  They seek to justify their behavior, rationalizing their way out of the guilt they know is due them.  As J. Budzeszewski noted, “No one has ever discovered a way to merely set aside the moral law; what the rationalizer must do is make it appear that he is right.  Rationalizations, then, are powered by the same moral law which they twist.”

Moral relativists who complain about the problem of evil are complaining about something, that on their own ontology, does not exist.  This makes as much sense as a man without a car complaining that it won’t start: It doesn’t exist, and yet it’s claimed to be broken.

443909a-i10Many attempts have been made to ground morality outside of a personal God, but all fall miserably short.  At best, non-theistic ethical systems offer a rationale, or principle by which one can justify a system of prescriptions and proscriptions, but in what do they ground the rationale?  The guiding principle may provide for a consistent system of ethical thought, but just because a system is consistent does not mean it is true, or that anyone is obliged to adopt it.  Offering a rationale for saying one ought to do X is very different from grounding that moral imperative itself.

The only way to ground a moral imperative is to anchor it in some transcendent source.  Any system that is grounded on principles created by man cannot transcend man because it has no objective value.  It is entirely subjective; a social convention; morality by the people, of the people, and for the people.  Society could choose to adopt a totally different rationale that supports a totally different set of prescriptions and proscriptions without violating any moral truths, because non-theistic moral systems are not representations of moral reality.  Indeed, there is no such thing as moral reality (moral anti-realism).  In the end, non-theistic moral systems provide no ontological basis on which to hang objective moral rules, and thus offer no compelling reason to abide by the rules of the system.

Some atheists believe objective moral rules exist as part of the fabric of the universe (they are moral realists).  These moral laws are said to exist as inexplicably as the laws of nature itself.  If so, the grounding problem would be solved, because there would be an objective basis for moral prescriptions and proscriptions.  But why think we are obliged to align our lives with these moral rules?  Obligations are grounded in relationships, and relationships entail personal agents.  If moral rules are not grounded in a transcendent moral being, it makes no sense to think we are obligated to follow them.  They can be safely ignored without enduring consequence.

But what if we chose to follow them anyway?  Would it matter?  No.  Our moral choices would be insignificant because the finality of the grave allows for no moral accountability.  I will not be rewarded for having obeyed the natural moral laws, and you will not be punished for having ignored them.  The outcome is the same.  In the end, it becomes meaningless.  A moral realism that is meaningless is no better than a moral anti-realism that is meaningless.  Only theism can ground objective moral values, our duty to submit to those values, and supply us with a rational reason to fulfill our moral obligations.

I should make it clear that the question is not whether non-theists can recognize objective moral laws apart from belief in God, or even keep them apart from belief in God.  They can, and do.  The question is how they can make sense of that which they recognize, and make sense of that which they do.  Apart from theism, I think the answer is negative.

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