Romans 2:14-15 reads – Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
Two weeks ago I looked at the big question of life – is there a God? We surveyed some of the contemporary cosmological and astronomical evidence which demonstrates that the universe (our space-time continuum) had a beginning point, and that the cause of the universe by definition must be an agent outside of space and time. Today I want to continue the discussion of God’s existence, but from a different perspective, answering a different key question.
After the question of the existence of God, one of the biggest philosophical questions concerns ethics—right and wrong, good and evil, how human beings ought to live. Is there such a thing as right and wrong? A standard which defines how we ought to live? If so, where does it come from? Once we acknowledge that some things are good and others bad, can mankind be good without God? That is, do we really need God in order to live morally well?
What we will discover together is that there is a standard of right and wrong human behavior which exists independently of us, and that the only plausible source for this standard is God. In essence, we are going to look at the moral argument for the existence of God. Again, I prefer to look at this as a clue or a signpost, a fact of life pointing towards the existence of God. The open-minded inquirer, approaching the question of human morality, will see in it a persuasive sign that there is a God; but one who comes with their mind firmly closed against the possibility of a transcendent divine Being will find some other way to explain the facts of morality – no matter how implausible their alternative explanation may be, it will be preferable than the conclusion of God, because God simply is not in their worldview’s pool of live options. Again, in order to be convinced by anything (including the moral signpost), we must be willing to be convinced. Not necessarily desiring or expecting to be convinced – but at least willing.
1. The Logical Statement of the Moral Argument for God’s Existence
a) P1 – “If objective moral values and duties exist, they can only be founded upon a transcendent divine Being (i.e., God).”
b) P2 – “Objective moral values and duties do exist.”
c) C – “Therefore, God exists.”
The argument is that there is only one sufficient and acceptable basis for the existence of objective moral values and duties, namely God. Thus, if objective morality does exist, God therefore must also exist. People can and will question the truth of either or both of these premises, but if the two premises of this argument are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows—it is what is called philosophically “a valid deductive logical argument.” We’re going to consider the premises in backwards order, and then consider the conclusion.
2. Premise 2 - Objective moral values and duties do exist.
a) What do we mean by objective moral values and duties?
“To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independently of whether any human being believes it to be so. Similarly to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong for us independently of whether any human being believes them to be so. For example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right, and it would still have been wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them so that it was universally believed that the Holocaust was right.” (William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 173)
Thus, objective morality states that there are values and duties which are true and real. Another way of putting it is simply that objective morality is the belief in “ought” – that there are things that “ought” to be done, independently of whether we want to or acknowledge it.
b) Arguments for the existence of objective morality
A popular feature of our post-modern society is “ethical relativism,” the belief that “what’s right for you is right for you but not for me.” Ethical relativism denies the reality of objective moral values and duties, arguing that moral standards are individual or social constructs and cannot be imposed upon other people. There are at least two basic forms of ethical relativism – personal and social. Personal relativism holds that morality is purely a personal decision – I choose what is right and wrong for me, and no one else has the right to influence or impact that decision. Social relativism holds, on the contrary, that moral standards fluctuate from culture to culture and time to time, and thus are not objective or universal at all. Ultimately, both forms of ethical relativism is a self-contradictory, self-defeating belief which cannot be lived out consistently. Let’s look at just a couple of arguments which demonstrate the impossibility of ethical relativism.
(i) Our reaction to “wrongs” committed against us.
C. S. Lewis writes: “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair!’ before you can say Jack Robinson.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 6) I find it fascinating that people who do not believe in a universal moral code still believe that people ought to treat them in a particular way.
Norm Geisler and Frank Turek, in an amusing and helpful book called I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist, tell a funny story to illustrate the impossibility of living consistently with ethical relativism.
A professor … assigned a term paper to his students. He told the students to write on any ethical topic of their choice, requiring each student only to properly back up his or her thesis with reasons and documentation.
One student, an atheist, wrote eloquently on the topic of moral relativism. He argued, “All morals are relative; there is no absolute standard of justice or rightness; it’s all a matter of opinion; you like chocolate, I like vanilla,” and so on. His paper provided both his reasons and his documentation. It was the right length, on time, and stylishly presented in a handsome blue folder.
After the professor read the entire paper, he wrote on the front cover, “F – I don’t like blue folders!” When the student got the paper back he was enraged. He stormed into the professor’s office and protested, “F! I don’t like blue folders!?!? That’s not fair! That’s not right! That’s not just! You didn’t grade the paper on its merits!”
Raising his hand to quiet the bombastic student, the professor calmly retorted, “Wait a minute. Hold on. I read a lot of papers. Let me see … wasn’t your paper the one that said there is no such thing as fairness, rightness, and justice?”
“Yes,” the student answered.
“Then what’s this you say about me not being fair, right, and just?” the professor asked. “Didn’t your paper argue that it’s all a matter of taste? You like chocolate, I like vanilla?”
The student replied, “Yes, that’s my view.”
“Fine then,” the professor responded. “I don’t like blue. You get an F!”
Suddenly the lightbulb went on in the student’s head. He realized he really did believe in moral absolutes. He at least believed in justice. After all, he was charging his professor with injustice for giving him an F simply because of the color of the folder. That simple fact defeated his entire case for relativism. (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist, 173-4)
It might be fun to try this out some day (no, I’m not serious). The next time that you hear someone argue that there is no absolute standard of morality, no universal moral code (natural law), punch them in the face and see how they respond. There are many people who claim to believe there is no such thing as an absolute, transcendent moral standard that we all “ought” to live by. But do something unkind or unjust or unfair to them, and their response betrays their true beliefs!
(ii) Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. …
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude …
All are equal before the law and are entitled to … equal protection of the law. …
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence …
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom … to manifest his religion or belief …
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression …”
The UN considers these Human Rights to be universal. But are they really? The world seems to expect that all nations and peoples are obliged to adhere to the standards contained within the declaration of human rights. I agree wholeheartedly. But for human rights to be universal, they require an unchanging standard of right and wrong – an objective standard of moral values and duties. Otherwise they are either an empty profession of wishful thinking or an imperialistic expression of dominant cultural social ethics imposed upon subjugated nation-states.
(iii) Unchanging Notion of Justice
Genesis 1:26-27 reads: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Alone amongst God’s creation, human beings are said to be created in the very image of God. There are many things wrapped up in the image of God, but one essential element of it seems to be an undeniable notion of justice or fairness. As an atheist, I often lamented the injustice of the world. Why did horrible things happen to good people? If there was a God, how could God simply stand by and allow the Holocaust to happen? Well, there was a serious problem with the way that I was thinking, that C. S. Lewis identifies clearly and profoundly. Lewis himself was an atheist, and came to this realization.
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? … Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 38-39)
Our undeniable, inalienable sense of justice demands an unchanging standard of right and wrong.
(iv) Real Objective Difference Between Moral Positions
Along the same lines, our human nature acknowledges that there is a real objective difference between various moral positions, something which demands an unchanging notion of good and evil, and a basis for that. Again, C. S. Lewis says it well.
If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilised morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others. We do believe that some of the people who tried to change the moral ideas of their own age were what we would call Reformers or Pioneers – people who understood morality better than their neighbours did. Very well then. The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others. … If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something – some Real Morality – for them to be true about. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13)
Pol Pot, Stalin, the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, and Hitler are truly morally different than Mother Teresa, Habitat for Humanity, and Martin Luther King Jr. Are these the same? If so, why do we respond with disgust toward some? Why are some condemned, and others praised? If the difference is merely a matter of taste, why such a visceral reaction against emaciated, massacred bodies in the Holocaust? Simply put, reality is that we all do believe, no matter how much some try to deny it, that there is a standard of behavior which we expect ourselves and others to live by. So, despite the trendiness of moral relativism in our society, there is in fact an objective standard of moral values and duties. Thus, the second premise in the moral argument for God’s existence is true and valid.
3. Premise 1: Objective moral values and duties can only be grounded in the existence of God.
The moral signpost for God’s existence holds that these objective moral values and duties can only exist if God exists. That is, if there is no God, then there is no sufficient grounding for objective morality. Some atheists admit that this is the case – such as William Provine. He may sound harsh, but at least Provine is honest about where his worldview leads – without God, he says, there is “no objective morality, no meaning in life, no human purpose.” Other atheists, however, insist that objective morality can be grounded and established without the necessity of God. They suggest two alternative sources of objective morality. As we will see, however, neither suggestion actually includes objective morality at all
a) Social Contract Theory
Some atheists suggest that morality is a social construct, particular to individual human societies. Moral standards are established in order to enable survival and promote human flourishing. Under this model, ethical standards can change over time and between cultures; there is nothing fixed, universal, or absolute in human morality. Thus, if you don’t like the morality of your social contract, you should move to a different one.
But, social contract ethics is not an explanation of universal objective ethics, but rather a denial of them!
First, it is a denial of the universality of ethics. Social contract ethics are, by definition, not universal, but local. Thus, while social contract ethicists promote their theory as an explanation for the universality of human ethics, it simply is not and cannot be so.
Second, it is a denial of the objectivity of ethics. Different social contracts are not by definition good or bad; they are simply different. More frightening, that means that Hitler’s genocidal ethic was not wrong, it was an acceptable German social contract. Hence, it was wrong for the Allies to prosecute war criminals at the Nuremburg trials – after all, those men and women were doing what was considered right and good within their social contract. Again, this is a denial of universal human sensibility, which holds that some things, even if acceptable under a particular social contract, are wrong.
There are numerous further problems with social contract ethics. For one thing, all of us are members of different moral societies at the same time. J. P. Moreland, in Scaling the Secular City, gives the example of a young Southern Baptist man (whose upbringing has taught him to abstain from getting drunk) going off to a secular university campus (where university authorities do not promote getting drunk, but certainly don’t condemn it) and joins a fraternity (where getting drunk is a weekly expectation), and also remains a member of the wider American system (where the legal drinking age is 21, making him too young to legally drink; but the legal drinking age is widely ignored anyway, implicitly making his drunkenness morally acceptable). Which society exerts primary moral influence upon this young man? Faith? Fraternity? University? Society? Social contract ethics provide no inkling of who the young man ought to follow. Ultimately, it breaks down into personal subjectivism, where the young man has to choose for himself which moral influence or authority he is going to follow.
Furthermore, social contract theory has no place for moral reform. William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr. are, under social contract moral theory, abominations who ought to have been shot and killed for their efforts at undermining the moral system of their society. Oh wait – one of them was. But eventually both of them exerted (along with others) morally reforming influence upon their society, and changed the moral fabric of their respective ‘social contracts’. Both of them (along with countless other moral reformers in various societies) have felt themselves to be altering the social fabric in order to bring it into adherence with an objective (trans-cultural) standard of morality by which all societies are rightfully judged. But there is no place, within social contract theory itself, for such behavior.
Thus, social contract theory simply cannot account for the existence of a universal, objective moral standard. It breaks down to social or cultural relativism, which is really just a version of the moral relativism we started with.
b) Evolutionary Ethics (aka Sociobiology)
Evolutionary ethics holds that morality is a product of human evolution – a development which natural selection found to be beneficial to the survival and propagation of the species, and thus was retained and refined. Morality, then, is based on instincts and genetics. There are three related versions of evolutionary ethics out there today.
(i) Biological determinism holds that humans act in accordance with biochemical impulses. Everything we do is predestined by our hard-wired biochemistry. This view has some startling resemblances to hyper-Calvinism, which holds that no human actions are truly free, but are all predetermined by the exhaustive will of God. Thus, rather than claiming that the devil made me do it, we can simply assert that our genes made us do it – we do not have moral culpability for our actions. We are not to blame; we are not responsible or accountable. And without moral responsibility and accountability, there is no system of morality at all.
(ii) Selfish gene theory, popularized by Richard Dawkins, holds that everything humans do is a result of fundamental selfishness and an irresistible urge to procreate. The ethic that drives human nature is a fundamental self-interest. One wonders how precisely this leads to an ethical system for humans to live by! Indeed, Dawkins concludes by professing, with absolutely no philosophical or intelligent basis, that man is somehow able to overcome and transcend the biological drive toward selfishness, to rise above evolution, and to construct a system of morality.
(iii) Reciprocal altruism argues that human ethics are indeed fundamentally selfish, but often seem to be “altruistic” (oriented toward the good of others) because of long-term self-benefits that are not readily apparent, but yet are calculated by the moral agent. Thus, a man might run into a burning building to rescue a complete stranger, but only because of some internal, implicit moral calculation which holds that his doing so now makes it more likely that someone will someday do the same for him if he needs such help.
The fundamental failure of each form of evolutionary ethics is their inability to move beyond is, to ought. At heart, they are descriptive in nature, and fail to provide a means of prescriptive morality. They tell us what is, but cannot tell us what ought to be. They explain what we do, but not what we ought to do. At best, evolutionary ethicists can exhort us to cooperate on the basis that this will achieve our own long-term benefit, and warn us that failing to cooperate may cost us in the long run. But sociobiology cannot tell us how we ought to act. Indeed, the enlightened elite in evolutionary ethics are best advised to keep the masses uninformed and adhering to some type of moral standard which ensures the preservation of the species, while we (or they) live in accordance with our selfish interests and desires. There is no transcendent ethic which each of us is morally obligated to follow.
Alternative moral theories all suffer from the same fatal flaw. They fail to account for the real nature of the Moral Law. They cannot explain why we all have an understanding of right and wrong, and expect one another to live according to it. All of the theories that we have discussed fail to explain the existence of an objective, external standard of right and wrong. If morality is an evolutionary product, then morality itself is subject to evolution. What is right today may be wrong tomorrow. What is wrong today may be right tomorrow. What is right for me may be wrong for someone else who is either more highly evolved or closer to being an amoeba. Ethical standards are, ultimately, relative. There is no standard by which we may judge the thoughts and actions of ourselves and others. Thus, we are back to the same problem as we had with postmodern relativistic morality and social contract theory. We still lack an explanation for the objective morality which we live in awareness of.
Indeed, an objective moral standard by definition must exist externally to us. As such, it requires an external source – a moral source which is beyond (transcendent to) our human existence. In other words, an objective moral standard requires something very much like our Christian understanding of God. There is no good without God. Alternative sources for universal, objective moral values and duties are simply insufficient. Only God will do. Thus, the moral argument for God’s existence is both powerful and sound.
a) P1 – “If objective moral values and duties exist, they can only be grounded in a transcendent divine Being (i.e., God).”
b) P2 – “Objective moral values and duties do exist.”
c) Conclusion – “Therefore, God exists.”
Please note two things that I am not saying in this. First, I am not saying that this demonstrates the existence of the God of the Bible beyond a rational shadow of a doubt. As with the clues for God’s existence provided by the origin and design of the universe (cosmology and teleology), all that this shows is that there has to be some type of God, not our God in particular. But this does demonstrate the intellectual and explanatory bankruptcy of atheism. Just as atheism cannot explain the existence and origin of the universe, so too atheism cannot explain the existence and origin of universal objective ethics.
Second, I am not saying that atheists cannot act morally. Indeed, I would argue the contrary—that atheists, like Christians, will often (even usually) act morally, because of the truth of the moral argument for God’s existence. Christians hold that God has written His moral law into the hearts of all His creatures, including those who reject God or deny His existence. Thus, as prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens argues (correctly), it is difficult to conceive of anything moral or good that a Christian can do that an atheist cannot do. Atheists can (and do) act in accordance with the universal moral law. They will not always do so, but then again neither will Christians, because of the continued presence of our sinful nature. All that the moral argument for God’s existence demonstrates is that the moral law itself is meaningless, indeed is a myth, in the absence of God. Yes, atheists might still live as if there are transcendent standards of right and wrong; but in the absence of God, there is no such thing. Indeed, one can not be good without God, because there simply is no such thing as good, without God.