4. The Moral Argument

by Blake

Throughout history, theists and atheists alike have affirmed that if God does not exist, then there can be no such thing as objective morality.  Friedrich Nietzsche believed that the death of God implied nihilism.  Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “Without God, all things are permitted.”  And yet we all possess a common, mysterious sense of morality – the sense that some things are not merely convention, but that they are really wrong.

The Moral Argument is:

1.  If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

2.  Objective moral values do exist.

3.  Therefore, God exists.

Consider premise one: if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.  William Lane Craig defines objective moral values as values that are valid and binding independent of whether anyone believes them or not.  For example, says Craig, if the Nazis had won and we were all ruled by and raised within a culture of Nazi morals, those morals would still be morally wrong in spite of the fact that we would all believe they were right.  The reason this first premise finds so much acceptance within atheism is because it merely implies that either:

a)Both God and objective moral values exist.

or

b)Neither God nor objective moral values exist.

While the theist believes the former, the atheist believes the latter.

Some people incorrectly interpret premise one to mean that if you believe God does not exist, then  you do not possess objective morals.  Premise one does not imply that atheists are immoral nor does it make any implication that theists have some kind of a monopoly on morality.  Instead, it simply states that regardless of what we believe about God, if God does not exist, then what is right and wrong cannot really be right and wrong.

The second premise claims that objective moral values do exist.  These shared morals transcend culture and history and are valid and binding independent of whether or not we follow them.

Consider a tribe that had no contact with the rest of civilization.  If you were to take their basic sense of right and wrong, and overlay it with ours you would find that it would be more similar than different.  If morality is just a cultural invention, then why would such vastly different cultures throughout the world independently come up with the same invented morals?  C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

“If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own… Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all people who had been kindest to him.  You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.”

To say morality is objective is to say that it is like gravity in that it is real and true whether or not humans believe it.  But notice that it is unlike gravity in that we cannot know it from observation since the moral law is not consistently seen in our actions.  Rather, it is just an idea we each find within ourselves that is compelling us towards a certain behavior.

Think about the idea that it is wrong to inflict pain on an innocent person.  To disagree with premise two, you would have to believe that torturing an innocent child is not really wrong, but wrong only insofar as society has labeled it wrong in order to have a peaceable society, the same way that society has decided that cars should travel on the right side to avoid chaos.  Most people just cannot accept this – their sense of morality strongly informs them that this is objectively immoral.  Our consciences tell each of us that to torture an innocent child is really wrong regardless of what society has to say about it.

One objection to premise two is that there is not really this moral sense within us, but rather it is an instinct that has evolved over time because it benefits the survival of our species.  Following this moral instinct happens to propagate our species further and that is all it is.

It is true that we may have an instinct to do something good, but think about competing instincts that arise in us.  It isn’t just the stronger of the two instincts that “wins out.”  There is something else beyond these two instincts that decides which instinct to suppress and which instinct to follow. An example of this is all the times when we act contrary to our natural instincts such as acts of bravery in spite of the instinct of self-preservation.  After all, we are not just animals that always strictly follow our inclinations.  In some contexts following the instinct leads to right action and in other contexts, following the instinct does not.  For example, the fighting instinct may need to be suppressed at a negotiating table, but may need to be encouraged on a battlefield.  Whatever it is that makes the decision about which instinct to follow at which time – the voice in our heads that says “I ought” – this is our moral sense.

Another objection to the moral argument is the idea that morals are simply taught and passed down through generations.  According to this objection, we are all indoctrinated with morals and this is good for society.  A sort of reciprocal morality develops: I don’t steal from you because I was raised that way and I don’t want to be stolen from.

It is true that many of us have learned our morals from our family.  But that is not evidence that it is merely a human invention.  I learned about gravity from my physics professor – would you then conclude that he invented the force of gravity?  Look at the way that people compare and contrast different moralities.  “The American morals are better than the morals of Nazi Germany.”  In judging which is better, you are appealing to some standard which is neither of them.  This standard is your moral sense.

Imagine two people on a deserted island each decide to construct a ruler.  They each take a stick and using their own judgment, mark off inches on their respective sticks.  They then compare the accuracy of their makeshift rulers.  The reason they are able to argue about which “ruler” is more accurate is because there is a real thing they are each attempting to be accurate to –  an actual, standard measurement of one inch.  If the standard inch didn’t exist, then each of their rulers would be right in their own way.  But the fact is that they both had in mind the standard inch as they were constructing their rulers.

If you accept premise one and premise two, then the conclusion logically follows: God exists.  If you believe that some things are really wrong in the true sense of the word, then the world cannot be only matter and energy.  Matter cannot understand right and wrong.  It takes a mind to define what is right and wrong.

“If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house.  The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.  And that is just what we do find inside ourselves.”  – C.S. Lewis