Existence of God (part 19)February 13, 2011 Time: 00:27:58
SummaryThe Moral Argument.
Excursus: Natural Theology
§ IV. Moral Argument
We have looked at three arguments for God’s existence, and today we want to come to the Moral Argument.
The American Humanist Association is sponsoring a bus banner campaign in certain U.S. cities which carries the message on the side saying, “No God, No Problem,” and then the sub-caption says, “Be Good for Goodness Sake.” And I thought that was a very, very clever ad, especially that slogan, “Be good for goodness sake.” That should be familiar to you – it comes from the children’s popular Christmas song about “Santa Claus is coming to town.” But as the humanist uses it, it involves a very clever pun; it is a double-entendre. It is different from the way it is in the children’s song. Remember in the children’s song, Santa Claus is portrayed as this sort of omniscient God-surrogate who is “keeping a list and checking it twice. He’s gonna find out if you’re naughty or nice.” So the advice of the Christmas song is: “You better not pout, you better not cry, you better not shout, I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town!” Like the second coming of Christ, Santa Claus is coming, and he’s been making this list, and he’s gonna find out whether or not you have been good. In fact, it says this all-seeing surrogate deity called Santa Claus, “he knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good – .” So the advice is: “Be good, for goodness sake!” Now here the advice to be good, for goodness sake, is a sort of expletive. It is like saying, “For goodness sake! Be good!” Why? “Because Santa Claus is coming!” It’s just a sort of expletive.
But when the humanists say this, it is different. When the humanists say this, there is no comma, as in “Be good, for goodness sake!” Instead, they say, “Be good for goodness’ sake.” That is why you should be good – because goodness is an end in and of itself. What the humanists rightly see is that this perverted Santa Claus theology gets it completely wrong when it says the reason you should be good is because of the rewards or the desserts that might come from being good. You are looking out for self-interest, and that is why you should be good. What the humanists rightly see is that that is a very perverse kind of theology. Rather, you should be good for “goodness’ sake.” Goodness is an end itself – you are to do good because it is good.
The problem I have with the humanist slogan is not with that sub-caption; it is with the main one: “No God, No Problem.” The problem is, if there isn’t any God, why think that there is any goodness, for which sake we can be good? If there is no God, then why think that good and evil objectively exist? So the question that is raised by the issue of atheism is whether we really can be good without God.
Now, at one level, the answer to that question is obvious. We all know people who are not believers in God who live good and decent lives. Many of us come from families like that – good, decent, hard-working folks who may just not believe in God. It would be arrogant of us to say they don’t live good and decent lives. So, at one level, of course, you can be good without believing in God. But that is not the question that is raised by the American Humanist bus campaign. The question is not, “Can we be good without the belief in God?” The question is, “Can we be good without God?” The issue isn’t belief in God; it is whether God exists.
The issue that is being raised here is whether, in the absence of God, there is any objective difference between good and evil. It is raising the meta-ethical question about the basis for the moral values that we all hold dear and try to guide our lives by.1 If there is no God, then is the difference between good and evil just like driving on the right-hand versus the left-hand side of the road, which varies with the culture and society you are in? Or is it just a matter of having a taste, as for certain foods? Some people like vanilla, and other people like chocolate, and there isn’t any objective truth about whether chocolate is better than vanilla. It is a matter of personal taste or opinion. Is that what moral values are like in the absence of God? Or are moral values somehow valid and binding on us regardless of what we think? And if they are objective in that way, then the question is, what is their foundation?
The existence of objective moral values and duties provides a very good argument for the existence of God. I myself stumbled into this argument through the backdoor, so to speak. I was speaking on university campuses on the absurdity of life without God. And what I would argue was purely negative – I would say that in the absence of God, life ultimately becomes absurd. There is no ultimate meaning to life, there is no ultimate purpose in life, and there are no ultimate, objective values in life. Everything becomes relative and subjective. And I found, to my surprise, that the response of students to this argument was to say that objective moral values do exist and that we do experience that things are really right and wrong and good and evil. What the students said didn’t in any way undermine my claim that in the absence of God there wouldn’t be any objective moral values. But by insisting that there are objective moral values, what the students had done is actually supply the missing premise in an argument for God’s existence. So we can argue in the following way:
1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
From which it follows logically and inescapably:
3. Therefore, God exists.
This little argument is easy to memorize, and it is logically airtight – if the premises are true, the conclusion follows necessarily. It is a wonderful argument to share with unbelievers. I had been arguing for the first premise – if there is no God then there are no objective moral values and duties. The students to whom I spoke supplied the second premise. There are objective moral values and duties. And this leads to the conclusion: therefore God exists. I think what makes this Moral Argument for God’s existence so powerful is that people generally believe in both premises. They just never put the two together to draw the logical conclusion.
Students have been taught today that there are no objective moral values. Everything is relative to society and culture. They have had this value of tolerance so deeply ingrained into them that they are deathly afraid of making a moral judgment about someone else. You have got to tolerate everything. So, they have been taught premise 1 – if there is no God, everything is relative and there are no objective moral values and duties.
But the problem is that they also believe premise 2, that there are objective moral values and duties. For example, they are deeply committed to the value of tolerance! They think it is wrong to be bigoted and narrow-minded and dogmatic. So their very commitment to tolerance is their commitment to the objective value of toleration. They think that it is objectively wrong to be intolerant of someone else. So they are committed to premise 2 as well as to premise 1.
This can lead to some very strange conversations. I remember one student I was sharing the Moral Argument with, and when I would talk to him about premise 1, he would agree with that and he would deny premise 2. And then we would go on to talk about premise 2, and when we talked about that, he would agree with premise 2 and he would deny premise 1. And so we’d go back to premise 1 again and talk about that, and he would then agree to premise 1 and deny 2. And so we would go back and forth, jumping from one premise to another with him unable to make up his mind. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so pathetic to see this student floundering desperately to try to avoid the obvious implication of objective moral values and duties – namely, that God exists.2
I think this is a very powerful argument for God’s existence. I want to now look more closely at each of the premises and see what sort of defense we can give of them and what kind of objections the unbeliever might raise.
The first premise says that if God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. In order to understand this premise it will be helpful to define a couple of terms to make a couple of key distinctions.
Moral “Values and Duties” Defined
First, notice that I distinguish between values and duties. Values have to do with whether something is good or bad. The value of something has to do with whether it is good or bad. Duties have to do with whether something is right or wrong. At first you might think that this is a distinction without a difference, that it is the same thing. You might think that “good” and “right” mean the same thing, and “bad” and “”wrong” mean the same thing. But if you reflect on this, you will see that really isn’t the case at all. Duty has to do with moral obligation – with what you ought to do or ought not to do. There is an “ought-ness” or “should-ness” involved with moral duties. Obviously, I am not morally obligated to do something just because it would be good for me to do it. For example, it would be good for you to become a medical doctor. But that doesn’t mean that you are obligated to become a medical doctor because, after all, it would also be good for you to become a farmer or to become a homemaker or to become an architect. Obviously, you can’t do them all. So just because something is good for you to do doesn’t mean that you have a moral obligation or duty to do that thing. Moreover, sometimes we only have bad choices. We have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Think of the movie Sophie’s Choice, where, you remember, a mother is put into a horrible situation by a Nazi concentration camp guard of choosing which of her children gets to live and which one is killed. To not choose, to refuse to choose, would mean they are both exterminated. So this wretched mother has to choose to send one of her children off to be killed and to choose one of the children to go with her and hopefully live. She didn’t have a good choice; she only had bad choices. So sometimes we have to make choices where neither option is good, but nevertheless we choose.
When you reflect on it, there is clearly a difference between the good and the bad, versus the right and the wrong. The good and the bad has to do with something’s worth, its moral worth. Whether something is right or wrong has to do with something’s being obligatory or forbidden. The one has to do with moral value, and the other with moral duty.
Answer: Certainly, some values are conditional. If you want to grow corn, it would be good for you to rotate your crops. But you are under no obligation to grow corn – that is not an unconditional duty. So, yes, there are certainly duties and obligations that are merely conditional. That is the way a lot of unbelievers, in fact, think of moral duties. They think they are all conditional. If you want to regard other people as ends in themselves, then you ought to be a loving person, or something like that. But the question is, why choose what is in that “if” clause, in that antecedent clause? But what we are talking about here are unconditional obligations or unconditional goods or evils.3
Answer: Yes, I think that there clearly are. For example, I think it is unconditionally bad to torture a child for fun. That is, I think, clear. It is unconditionally good to be a loving and generous person. I think when most of us reflect on our moral experience, we do see that there is a clear, objective, unconditional difference between modes of behavior. But we will get to that when we talk about the second premise.
Question: Do skeptics ever just object to the ideas of moral values? I heard some people occasionally say to look at animals. Animals behave instinctively good and if they attack and eat another animal, that is not evil, that is just preservation. But the point is that it wasn’t moral values; it was just instinctual. So you can say, yeah, you don’t torture a child because it is an animal instinct not to do it.
Answer: I think that this attitude, which you hear very, very prevalently in this culture today, is supportive of premise 1! This will be the sort of argument I will give for premise 1. If there is no God, then we are just animals. And the kind of behavior that we exhibit in human morality is simply foreshadowed already in the altruistic behavior that exists, say, in a troupe of baboons, where natural selection has determined that if one scratches another’s back, the other will scratch his back in return. The species will survive more effectively if this sort of altruistic behavior is exhibited. So that is actually a powerful argument in support of premise 1. Far from denying it, it supports it.
Question: When you talked about things existing necessarily, has anyone argued that moral values necessarily exist?
Answer: Yes, we will talk about this when we get to premise 2. I think what you will find – and this is a surprise to most people – is that the wide majority of philosophers and university professors do believe that objective moral values exist. Although the ones that get the press are the ones who defend premise 1 – people like Richard Dawkins and others – the fact of the matter is, by far and away, most philosophers think that objective moral values and duties exist. And the question will be their grounding or their foundation. And some will say, “Well, you don’t need a foundation. They are just there. They just exist necessarily.” So we will talk about that when we come to premise 2.
Question: In my experience, atheists seem to say that God does not exist, but objective values do exist. So they would disagree with premise 1. I think that is where we get hung up. It is hard to get agreement on premise 1 when in the past we have seen so many civilizations engage in behavior that we, today, think is wrong (like cannibalism, or child sacrifice, or even Nazi Germany’s Final Solution).
Answer: If that is the answer, it is hard for you to get clarity on their response because what I heard there was talking out of both sides of their mouth. On the one hand, you don’t need God to have objective moral values and duties. On the other hand, what I hear is, “But look at the relativity of moral values among societies and cultures in the world. Look at how they used to do things in the ancient realm that now we find morally unthinkable – we just simply learned how to live together in society now.” That is supporting premise 1! So you have two different contradictory things coming out of the same person’s mouth. On the one hand, he wants to affirm the objectivity of moral values and duties, but then when he explains it, it is supportive of premise 1, saying that moral values and duties are things we’ve just learned over the centuries and that they still vary widely from culture to culture and society to society. So what we want to know is, with what right can one culture or society say that the moral values of another are objectively wrong, rather than just different?4 They are relative. So why can one culture or society think that its values are right and another’s are mistaken? If there is no God to act as a transcendent anchor point, from which these different cultural viewpoints can be judged, aren’t you just left with a plurality of cultures and societies which have evolved different morals, and what is unthinkable in one is thinkable in another? Who is to say whose cultural values are right and whose are wrong? That is supportive of premise 1.
That is the first distinction. The other distinction is the distinction between objective and subjective. By objective, I mean independent of people’s opinions. Something is objective if it is independent of people’s opinions. By subjective, I mean dependent upon people’s opinions. When we say there are objective moral values and duties, what we are asserting is that certain things are good or bad, right or wrong, independently of what anybody thinks about it. It doesn’t matter if everybody in the world disagreed and believed something else, these moral values would still be true and real. That is what it means to say something is objective. To say that we have objective moral values means that something is good or bad regardless of what people think about it. Similarly, to say we have objective moral duties to fulfill means that we have moral obligations and prohibitions which are binding on us, regardless of what we think. So the claim is, in premise 1, that if there is no God, then moral values and duties are not objective in that sense.
An easy way to remember it is: “subjective” sounds like “subject” and so it is dependent on what somebody (the subject) thinks whereas “objective” sounds like “object” and that is just out there – an object – regardless of what you think about it. Objective is the thing that is real and independent of anybody’s opinion. Subjective is what depends on how some subjects (i.e., people) view it.
Let me illustrate what it would mean to say that something is objectively wrong. Take the Holocaust, for example. To say that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that the Holocaust 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 brainwashing or exterminating everybody who disagreed with them, so that everybody in the world thought the Holocaust was right and good. To say that the Holocaust was objectively wrong means that it was wrong regardless of the outcome of World War II. And the premise is that if there is no God, then moral values and duties are not objective in that sense.
Question: To go back to your original opening statement of “be good for goodness’ sake” – goodness would be a subjective value, correct?
Answer: No, goodness would be something that would exist in the sense that, say, being a loving person is a “good thing.” A person who is a loving person has the quality of goodness insofar as he is loving and selfless.
Followup: But if my love is squashing my child’s ability to be independent, then is it still good?5
Answer: I would say that that is objectively bad because you are hurting another person who is a bearer of intrinsic moral value. You are crippling that other individual, so that would be objectively wrong to do that. So to say you do something for goodness sake is to say you do it because it is the right thing to do. Now I distinguish between goodness and rightness – you are not morally obligated to do something just because it is good. But suppose that it is the right thing for you to do, then you should do it because it is right, not because you are going to get a reward or it is in your self-interest. And it really is right, even if you don’t think that it is right – that is what we mean when we say it is objective.
Question: To premise 1, not only don’t moral values and duties exist, but the terms “good” and “evil” are meaningless.
Answer: I wouldn’t say they are meaningless, though I think I understand what you are saying. It would be to say that they have no reference point. They do not refer to anything. Or they have to be redefined so that they refer to something, like “that which is conducive to human flourishing” or “that which will promote harmonious living and society.” You redefine the terms to mean something else. But I think you are quite right in saying that in the absence of God, there just is no good and evil. These words refer to nothing.
You can be mistaken about what the good and right is. Certainly this is not an argument that our moral perceptions are infallible. We make mistakes all the time, but the very fact of moral error points to the objectivity of these values. If they are not objective, you can’t err or fail to do the right or good thing because it is all subjective anyway. So the very fact of moral error and moral disagreement and moral failure actually presuppose the objectivity of moral values and duties.6
6 Total Running Time: 27:57