General Theism (Part 4): Morality

In our final affirmative argument for the existence of God, we’ll be examining the basis for moral values and duties. To preempt a far-too-common misunderstanding, this argument is *not* saying that all atheists are terrible people and all theists are good, nor even that most atheists are terrible and most theists are good. This argument says exactly nothing about how a belief in God affects one’s behavior. Rather, it examines whether the existence of moral values can be adequately explained by an atheistic worldview. The argument goes like this:

  1. Objective moral values and duties exist.
  2. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is like the Kalam Cosmological Argument that we examined two posts ago in that it has two premises from which a conclusion logically follows – a person cannot rationally believe 1 and 2 but deny 3. Just as before, then, we’ll proceed by examining whether premises 1 and 2 are plausibly true, and if they are, 3 follows without further argument.

Before we even get into our defense of the argument, though, we need to define our terms. (Pro tip: always do this. A shocking number of arguments in day-to-day life result from a difference in terminology rather than an actual difference in belief.) Let’s start with moral values. Just like black, white, and grey are color values that can be possessed by different objects, there are moral values possessed by different actions.  Some actions, like stealing, are morally bad; others, like charity, are morally good.  When I say that these moral values are objective, I mean that they’re intrinsic to the action and don’t depend on anyone’s moral beliefs.

Moral duties, rather than dealing with good and bad, deal with right and wrong.  It would be good for me to become a firefighter and help others, and it would also be good for me to pay for the meal of the guy behind me in the drive-through, yet I’m not morally obligated to do either.  I am, however, morally obligated to warn someone if I see a train headed towards them; it’s not just good for me to do so, it is right, and it is wrong for me not to.  Regardless of what I believe about morality, I can justly be held accountable if I fail to fulfill my moral duty.

One last note: in order for premise 1 to be true, I don’t need every action to have an objective moral value, I just need at least one action to have an objective moral value.  With that in mind, we can assess this premise by considering a few questions.  Could murdering someone for fun ever be anything but wrong?  What about torturing a baby for no reason whatsoever?  What about oppressing people because of their race or gender?  I’d argue that these actions can never be morally good regardless of what the perpetrator or their society may believe.  Even if the Nazis had won World War 2 and indoctrinated everyone in the entire world to agree with them, the Holocaust would still have been morally wrong.  These may seem like extreme examples (because they are), but if you say that no objective morals exist, then I don’t see how you can escape the conclusion that even these extreme atrocities aren’t truly, objectively wrong. Assuming, then, that you condemn these atrocities as passionately as I do, we can agree that there are at least some objective moral values and duties.

In order to assess premise 2, we must imagine that there isn’t a God (or perhaps stop imagining that there is one).  In this Godless universe, how can we explain the existence of objective moral values and duties?  While we certainly have an innate sense that some things are right and others are wrong, personal belief and intuition clearly can’t be the source of an objective (person-independent) moral standard; at most, they’re indicators of a higher moral standard.  A natural place to look for this standard is society, but it too fails to be objective; as just one example, America used to believe that slavery was morally acceptable, and now it doesn’t.  Some have suggested that morality is grounded in evolution, but there are a number of problems with this suggestion.  For starters, it’s not clear that every action favored by evolution is a moral one.  But the much deeper issue is that evolution can only describe why morality appears to exist; if my moral urges are nothing more than evolution-favored instincts, I have absolutely no obligation to continue following them.  The last option I’d like to consider is that morality is like chess. The ultimate goal of chess is to take the opponent’s king, so moves which further that goal are said to be good, and moves which don’t are said to be bad.  This seems like a promising approach to morality; maybe morality is ultimately about helping people, and from that we objectively derive all our morals and duties.  The problem with this model is that we’ve smuggled in our goal (or “objective”).  Why should I help other people instead of, for instance, acquiring a maximal number of socks? To say “because that doesn’t help people” would be plainly circular – what we need is a super-standard by which to judge our standards, and that puts us squarely back where we started.

In the end, we find that the search for objective morals in our Godless universe is fruitless.  We feel certain that they exist, but we can’t seem to find any way that they could have come about.  What we need is an authoritative, unchanging, personal source for our objective morals; in other words, God.

If our defenses of premises 1 and 2 hold water, God’s existence follows necessarily. This concludes the “affirmative” section of our dialog on General Theism. To review, we’ve tried to argue that the beginning of the universe implies a transcendant cause, that the fine-tuning of the universe implies a cosmic designer, and that the existence of objective moral values and duties imply the existence of an authoritative and personal Lawgiver. Taken together, these arguments make a powerful case for God’s existence – but before we draw any conclusions, we need to make sure that there are no counterarguments that outweigh the arguments we’ve presented.

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