Moral Argument (part 1)

October 15, 2007     Time: 00:16:02

We are going to turn now to a discussion of the moral argument for the existence of God. So far we have been looking at philosophical and scientific arguments. This is an ethical argument. There are a wide variety of moral reasons for believing in God, but this is a particularly simple moral argument that I have used over and over again with university students and I find very effective. It really grabs people where they live. This is not just a matter of scientific evidence or philosophical issues that may not impact your life. This is an issue that is vitally important because everyday as you live you make moral choices. So everyday by your behavior you answer the question whether or not you believe that God exists. The argument consists basically of three simple steps:

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

2. Objective moral values do exist.

3. Therefore, God exist.

That is a very simple argument for the existence of God and is easy to memorize. It is just three steps. It is logically valid. If those two premises are true then the conclusion follows necessarily and logically. The only question is: are the two premises true?

Let's look at the first premise: if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. What is key to this premise is understanding what I mean by the word “objective.” By “objective” I mean valid and binding independently of whether anybody believes in it or not. To say that moral values are objective means that these moral values are binding and valid independently of whether any human being believes in them or not.

For example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was good, and it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everybody who disagreed with them so that everyone thought the Holocaust was good. To say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say it was evil regardless of whether anybody thinks that it was or not. That is what we mean by objective moral values. They hold independently of whether any human being happens to agree with them or not.

Many theists and atheists alike will agree that if God does not exist then moral values are not objective in that sense. I find this first premise is one that young people, at least, really resonate with because they have been taught for years in high school and college that everything is relative and that every society and culture develops its own set of moral values, and that it is arrogant and immoral for one society to impose its values upon another society. So who are you to judge that the values of, say, Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of liberal, democratic Western society. In the absence of God, everything becomes socio-cultural relative. So I find that this is a premise that people readily agree to because this is what they've been taught. Relativism has been inculcated into them over the years through their secondary and university education.

But it seems to me, wholly apart from that, it is very plausible in and of itself. Consider what naturalism says. Naturalism is the view that there is no God and that all that exists is just physical objects in space and time – just the natural world is all that exists. On naturalism, what foundation is there for objective moral values?[1] More particularly, what is the basis for the objective value of human beings on naturalism? If God does not exist as a sort of transcendent anchor point for moral values, then it is hard to see why human beings would be special or that the morality that has evolved among human beings would be objectively binding. Why think that we would have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what would impose these obligations upon us? On naturalism, we are just products of biological and social evolution, and the values that we embrace today are simply the socio-biologically relative byproducts of the system of evolution.

Let me give some illustrations from some non-Christian thinkers who say this. For example, Bertrand Russell, who was (in some people's minds at least) the greatest philosopher of the 20th century – a great agnostic or atheist philosopher, had this to say about moral values. Russell said,

. . . ethics arises from the pressure of the community on the individual. Man . . . does not always instinctively feel the desires which are useful to his herd. The herd, being anxious that the individual should act in its interests, has invented various devices for causing the individual’s interest to be in harmony with that of the herd. One of these is [government, one is law and custom, and one is] morality.[2]

So morality is basically a kind of herd mentality. It is a herd morality that the community imposes on the individual so that the individual will act in the best interest of the herd rather than in his own self-interest. You often hear people say this today. The reason you don't kill and steal from other people is because they then might steal from you or kill you. So in the interest of living together in harmony, you develop this sort of moral code that will be in the interest of the community. It will perpetuate the community as opposed to the individual self-interest of the particular individual. So there is a kind of herd morality that exists among human beings because it is useful in the perpetuation of our species and of our community – whether that be our local tribe or it be a nation-state.

Michael Ruse, who is another very prominent philosopher of biology and an atheist, agrees with this. He says this,

Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. … Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. … Nevertheless, … such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.[3]

On Ruse's view, morality is just a socio-biological spin-off of the evolutionary process, and it has no objective validity. Considered as an objective something, ethics is an illusion of human beings. If you were to rewind the film of evolutionary history and start over again, very different creatures might well have evolved from the blind process of biological evolution who have very different values than those that we have today. Ruse, for example, asks the question, “Is rape wrong on Andromeda?” He imagines that there might be a race of individuals living on a planet in the galaxy Andromeda for whom rape is not thought to be wrong. He notes that rape is a constant among non-human organisms as well. It goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. In fact, Ruse says that rape can actually be biologically advantageous because if a male is prepared to use force on occasion to spread his genes then he is more likely to reproduce than otherwise.[4] So rape in the animal kingdom has actually evolutionary and biological advantage.

But, of course, the question is, on naturalism we are just animals. We are just relatively advanced primates, cousins to the chimpanzee and the orangutan. So if there are no objective moral values for animals – if animals are not moral agents – then why think that we are moral agents? Why think that we have objective moral value?

As the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz has framed the issue – Kurtz is one of the most significant humanist thinkers in our society today – he says,

The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. [That is to say, their foundation in reality.] If they are neither derived from God, nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?[5]

It seems to me that the answer on naturalism is plausibly, “Yes.” Moral values are just illusory, as Michael Ruse says. They are just ephemeral. They are not real. They are not objective. They are just the products of human consciousness.

Richard Taylor, who is a prominent non-Christian ethicist, invites us to imagine a race of people who are living in a state of nature without any laws or customs. He says let's suppose one of them kills another one and takes his goods. He says this would have no more moral significance than if one animal killed another and took something that the other animal had. He gives the illustration of a lion killing a zebra. He says a lion kills the zebra, but it doesn't murder it technically. Murder is a human value judgment. A lion kills the zebra but the lion isn't guilty of murder. A seagull may snatch a fish from the talons of another seagull but it doesn't steal the fish. Stealing is a moral term that is a product of human thinking. It takes the fish, but it doesn't steal it.

What Taylor says is for these people living in a state of nature exactly the same thing would apply. We are just animals. Therefore, we may kill, we may take other's goods, but there is no such thing as murder or theft or stealing because those are just sociological constructs that only exist in our collective imagination, but there really isn't any objective moral values.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who was the great atheist of the 19th century and who proclaimed the death of God, argued that the demise of Christianity and the death of God meant the advent of nihilism. Nihilism, from the Latin word nihil meaning nothing, means the absence of any value or meaning in life. There is just nothingness. Nietzsche said that the end of Christianity, the death of God, meant the advent of nihilism – the destruction of all objective meaning in life. A good many contemporary atheists and theists as well would agree with Nietzsche on this. I think he is right.

I want us to be very careful here, because it is very important to understand the question. The question here is not “Must we believe in God in order to live good and moral lives?” I am not claiming that we must believe in God in order to live good, moral lives. There is no reason to think that atheists as well as Christians cannot live what we'd normally characterize as a good and decent life. Nor is the question, “Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God?” There is no reason to think you have to believe in God in order to recognize the difference between right and wrong. In fact, the Bible actually says that God has implanted his moral law on the hearts of all people so that we have an instinctual grasp of the difference between right and wrong. So you don't need to believe in God in order to recognize that you ought to love your children rather than to torture them and abuse them.[6] The question here is not whether belief in God is essential to morality. Rather, the question is, as Paul Kurtz said, if there is no God then are moral values and duties objective or are they just ephemeral?

It seems to me that if there is no God, if God does not exist, then like Russell and Ruse there just isn't any basis for thinking that human beings have objective moral value or that the herd morality that has evolved among Homo sapiens on this planet is objectively true.[7]



[1] 5:05

[2] Bertrand Russell, “Authority in Ethics”, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter 10

[3] Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), 262,268,289.

[4] 10:01

[5] Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 65.

[6] 15:02

[7] Total Running Time: 16:10 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)