Existence of God (part 20)

February 20, 2011     Time: 00:42:41


The Moral Argument.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ IV. Moral Argument
Lecture 2

We are looking at the Moral Argument for God’s existence. And we saw last time that there is a difference between moral values and moral duties. Moral values have to do with what is good or bad – the moral worth of something. Moral duties have to do with what is right or wrong – it has to do with our obligations and our prohibitions.

Then we also saw there is a difference between being objective and being subjective. Something is objective if it is independent of people’s opinions. If it holds or is true independently of what anybody thinks then it is objective. It is subjective if it is dependent upon people’s opinions.

We now want to turn to an examination of premise 1 in the Moral Argument which is “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.”

Let’s talk first about moral values. Traditionally, moral values have been thought to be anchored in God, who is the supreme Good. Traditionally, God has been thought in theology as the greatest Good or the highest Good or in Latin “summum bonum.” Other goods are determined by how they relate to God as the anchor or the yardstick or the moral plumb line for value. But suppose God does not exist. Then what is the basis for objective moral values? What plumb line or anchor remains in the absence of God for moral values? In particular, why think that human beings would have objective moral worth on an atheistic view?

Objective Human Value on Naturalism

The most popular form of atheism is a philosophy called naturalism. Naturalism is the view that science and science alone determines what exists. What exists is what our best scientific theories of the world require. If something is not required by our best scientific theories of the world, then it does not exist. But this is devastating for ethics because moral values are not required by science. Science is morally neutral. You cannot find moral values in a test tube. So it follows immediately, from the perspective of naturalism, that moral values do not really exist. They are just subjective illusions of human beings.

So, on naturalism, the morality we experience in our lives is really just a subjective illusion of human beings. Suppose the atheist isn’t a hardcore naturalist. Suppose he is willing to go beyond the confines of science to see what exists. Still, we could ask, given atheism, why are human beings objectively morally valuable? After all, what are human beings on an atheistic worldview? They are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short period of time. Richard Dawkins’ assessment of human worth may be depressing, but why on atheism is he wrong when he says, “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA. . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being.”1 This is what, on an atheistic view, human beings are reduced to.

So what are moral values on an atheistic view? It seems that moral values are just the spin offs, or the byproducts, or socio-biological evolution, just as in a troupe of baboons you will see self-sacrificial behavior exhibited by members of the troupe.2 They will look out for each other’s interest because natural selection has determined that this is going to be valuable in the struggle for survival. And just as you see that in a troupe of baboons, so their primate cousins, Homo sapiens, have a similarly evolved herd morality which is useful in the perpetuation of our species. The illusion of morality has survival value and therefore is perpetuated among Homo sapiens.

But there isn’t anything about Homo sapiens to make you think that this morality is objectively true. It is simply conducive to the survival of our species. And to think that human beings are somehow morally special is to be guilty of the fallacy of species-ism. This is an unjustified bias in favor of one’s own species. To think that human beings are morally special, different from other animals, is just to succumb to the natural temptation to species-ism. If there isn’t any God, it is very difficult to see why the morality that has evolved among Homo sapiens on this planet is in any way objectively true. If you take God out of the picture, then all we seem to be left with is an ape-like creature on this planet who is beset with delusions of moral grandeur. He thinks that somehow he is the sink of objective moral values.

Secondly, let’s talk about moral duties. Traditionally, our moral duties were thought to spring from God’s commandments, for example, the Ten Commandments. God has given certain moral commands to us which constitute our moral duties. But take away God, and what basis remains for objective moral duties? On the atheistic view, human beings are just animals. And animals don’t have obligations toward one another. When a lion, for example, kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it doesn’t murder the zebra. Or when a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female shark, it forcibly copulates with her, but it doesn’t rape her. None of these things has any moral dimension to it. They are neither forbidden nor obligatory. There just are no moral duties to fulfill with regard to these things. If God doesn’t exist, why think that we have any moral duties to fulfill? Who or what lays these moral obligations and prohibitions upon us? Where do they come from?

It is hard to see that moral duties would be anything more than a kind of subjective illusion that has been ingrained into us by societal and parental conditioning. Certain actions, say, incest and rape, are not advantageous in human society, and so in the course of societal evolution, rape and incest have become generally taboo among human cultures. There are certain taboos that exist in human society. But this is not to say that these actions are objectively, morally wrong. Such actions go on all the time in the animal kingdom. Actions which look very much like rape and incest and murder happen all the time among animals. With respect to human beings, the child pedophile or rapist who tortures and kills a little girl, on atheism, doesn’t really do anything morally wrong. It is just socially unacceptable. He is kind of like the man who belches loudly at the dinner table, violating the rules of etiquette, or like the person who wears white socks with a tuxedo. It is socially unconventional. But if there isn’t any moral law giver, then there isn’t any objective moral law which we are obligated to fulfill. So it seems that on atheism, there really aren’t any objective moral values or duties. And that is exactly premise 1.3


Question: You said all these behaviors you can see in the animal world, so the atheists say it is no big deal. But I don’t think anywhere in the animal world they have homosexuality. Correct me if I am wrong. I think that is where the argument will fall apart.

Answer: I am not expert enough to make a biological pronouncement, but certainly there are animals that are either sex. Certain kinds of animals like worms and other types are bi-sexual. But let me say in the first place, as we will see in a minute, most atheists want to affirm the objectivity of moral values. I think it is the brave minority who have the courage to face the implications of their worldview and draw these conclusions. But I think the vast majority, inconsistently, I would say, want to affirm that certain things are really right and wrong and good and evil. So they wouldn’t try to read moral values out of the evolutionary process. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and if you try to read your morality out of what evolution inculcates in animals to survive, then you would sanction all sorts of atrocities. So whether or not a certain type of behavior is observed among animals I think is really morally irrelevant. Animals aren’t moral agents, so what they do or don’t do is just no guide to morality at all. It is morally neutral. So whether there are mammals that practice homosexual copulating is really morally irrelevant because nobody is trying to read moral values out of nature.

Question: You said societal values have evolved until the point it has been determined what is beneficial. Where do you come back to say that there is a God that has established right and wrong? The conversation typically goes, “Society determines that something is good or bad. And that means there is not a God.”

Answer: No, it doesn’t. You are right. It will be in conjunction with the second premise that it will lead to God’s existence. So hang on to that question. Some of you might be a little uncomfortable with what I have been arguing here because it sounds so much like the kind of atheistic or naturalistic propaganda that you read about in magazines and newspapers, namely, there is no God, and therefore everything is relative. I think these folks are right – if there is no God, everything is relative, and there are no objective moral values. I admire those naturalists who have the courage to face up to this and own it. I think that the writings of atheists like Richard Dawkins and philosophers Russell, Sartre, Nietzsche, and the rest, are very helpful in understanding the human predicament apart from God. What would life be like if there were no God to anchor moral values and duties? I think the picture is grim indeed.

Question: If I am the first gorilla or human, maybe I like being the only gorilla or human. Who says I have an obligation to propagate the species?

Answer: Exactly, why think you have any obligation to perpetuate your species? Why not look out for self-interest? Again, you cannot read morality out of the evolutionary process because you have no obligation to do those things.4 So if you feel, for example, instinct pressuring you to engage in some self-sacrificial act for the sake of others, maybe even to sacrifice your life, it seems that on atheism the intelligent thing to do would be to look out for your own self-interest, and there is no reason that you should obey those instincts. Those are just ingrained into you by evolution and society; there is no objective reason to follow them, and so you ought to look out for self-interest and resist these instincts. So, on atheism, what happens is, there is a huge clash between what our moral conscience tells us to do and what prudence sometimes tells us what to do. Prudence and morality are often at odds, and the question for the atheist would be: why act morally rather than out of self-interest? Why not just act out of prudence?

Question: Homosexuality is very common in the animal kingdom, especially among higher primates. There are several species of monkeys that regularly engage in these acts.

Answer: I have never heard of that. OK, thank you; that is news to me.

Question: Dogs mount your leg and also eat their young. So you are right we should not read out of the animal kingdom any kind of morality. If you talk to a lay person on the street, they say something to the effect of, morals are just innate. They don’t feel like they have to explain it any further. It is just somewhere in us, somehow. Can you comment on that? You are also saying it is hard to make sense of these moral ideas on a naturalistic perspective, but can you turn it and say natural selection would encourage predatory behavior?

Answer: That is what I said in response to the earlier question. If you try to read morality out of the evolutionary process, it will sanction all sorts of atrocities because nature is red in tooth and claw. It is the predator who is preying upon the weak and the infirm. There is no compassion of that sort in nature. It is survival of the fittest. Nobody, not even naturalists, want to try to say that we should read morality out of the evolutionary process because if you do, it will sanction murder, genocide, rape, incest, cannibalism, killing innocent people, and all kinds of things. You can’t try to read morality out of the evolutionary process.

With respect to a couple of the other alternatives: Individual relativism, or maybe a kind of social contract in which we get together and make a compact for the good of society, those are both right in line with premise 1. Objective morals don’t exist – remember what objective means: independent of human opinion. So relativistic morality and social contract views of morality are subjective. They are dependent upon pacts made by human beings that are dependent upon human opinion. If we choose to make a different compact, then we can have a very different morality, such as in South Africa, where blacks were disenfranchised, or in Nazi Germany, where Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals were considered fodder for the gas chambers and the ovens. So those social contract views and personal choice views are right in line with premise 1. We will consider in a moment other points of views that try to defend objective morals without reference to God. But at least so far, I am simply arguing that on a naturalistic view, human beings are just animals, and we have no grounds objectively for thinking they are valuable or have any duties to one another or anything else.5

Ontology vs. Epistemology

Now if you share this argument with somebody else, I can almost guarantee the response that you are going to get. Somebody will say indignantly, “Are you saying that all atheists are bad people? How dare you say that atheists cannot be good people? That is arrogant and immoral! You are judgmental and intolerant in saying that about atheists!” We need to help these folks to see that that is a complete misunderstanding of the argument. We are not arguing here that atheists are immoral people or that they can’t live good and decent lives or anything of the sort.

The question that we are facing is not, “Do you have to believe in God in order to live a good and decent life?” That is not the question. There is no reason to think that unbelievers cannot live what we would normally call a good and decent life. In fact, many of us come from families where our family members are good and decent and loving people, but they may be unbelievers. So, clearly, the claim is not that in order to live a decent life, you have to be a believer in God. Again, the question is not, “Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God?” We are not asking whether we can recognize objective moral values without believing in God. You do not have to believe in God in order to recognize that you ought to love your children rather than mutilate and abuse them. Indeed, the Bible actually teaches that the moral law of God is written on all people’s hearts. In Romans 2:14-15, it says even Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature what the law requires – they show the law is written on their hearts. Therefore, from a Christian point of view, there is a kind of innate moral instinct or sense that all persons have in virtue of being God’s creatures. We don’t need to believe in God in order to recognize that objective moral values and duties exist. Or, again, the question is not, “Can we formulate an adequate system of ethics without believing in God?” We are not asking if we can formulate an adequate system of ethics without believing in God. If a person is willing to grant that human beings have intrinsic moral value, given that presupposition he can probably work out a system of ethics with which the Christian will very largely agree.

The question is, “Why think that human beings have intrinsic moral worth?” The question that this argument is raising is simply this, “If God does not exist, do objective moral values and duties exist?” The question is not about the necessity of the belief in God, the question is about the necessity of the existence of God. We are not claiming belief in God is necessary for morality; we are claiming God is necessary for morality.

I have to say, I have been shocked at how even professional philosophers who ought to know better make this confusion. For example, several years ago, I participated in a debate on the subject “Goodness without God is Good Enough” with the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz of the American Humanist Association at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.6 And I argued, as I have here, that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. And this is how Paul Kurtz responded – he completely missed the point:

If God is essential, then how is it possible for the millions and millions of people who don’t believe in God to nonetheless behave morally and ethically? On your view they could not. And so God just is not essential. Many people, indeed millions of people, have been optimistic about life, have lived a full life, and find life exciting and significant, yet they don’t wring their hands about whether or not there is an afterlife. It is living here and now that counts.

Kurtz’s point only shows that belief in God is not necessary for living an optimistic and full life. It doesn’t do anything to respond to my claim that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. To repeat again, just to make it absolutely clear, belief in God is not necessary for morality; God is necessary for morality. That is the argument.7


Question: If God does not exist, there is no bad or good objectively. Therefore, other people, even atheists, can subjectively believe they know what objective moral values are, but by definition they are subjective. In fact, you would have to know God completely to know if you know any objective morality. Everything is subjective until you know him, correct?

Answer: Well, no. If God exists, then there is objective morality, and that means, for example, that the atheist is doing wrong things when he commits sins that are against God’s will. The atheist is doing good things when he does things in accordance with God’s will. And that is the case even if the atheist doesn’t believe in God. So again, belief in God is not necessary for objective morality. The atheist can do evil and can do good if God exists, even though the atheist doesn’t believe in God. So don’t think that because he doesn’t believe in God, everything becomes subjective. What matters is that God exists, not whether the atheist believes in him.

Followup: What I was saying, you can’t know what you subjectively know is objectively true, until you know the Creator because it all comes from him. People can obey and most people believe in the bulk of the objective laws.

Answer: In taking this stand on this argument, I am not committing myself to how we come to know about objective moral values. I am inclined to think that the atheist can know that objective moral values exist because I believe Romans 2:14-15, where it says it is written on the hearts of all men. So when the atheist sees that loving his children is a good thing to do, I think that he has moral knowledge. He has knowledge of that truth. But he just doesn’t understand the foundation for it. That is neither here nor there with regard to my argument. Certainly some moral duties we wouldn’t be able to apprehend without a knowledge of God because certain commandments that God gives us would be things we would not be able to read off of the natural law. Sabbath worship would not be something you can read off of the natural moral law – that is a command God has given. You wouldn’t be able to know about that moral duty to keep the Sabbath unless you had some revelation from God. There could be a variety of ways that we can come to moral knowledge. Some could be through the instinct written on our hearts, some could be through intuition, some could be through divine revelation. I am not making a commitment on any of those.

Question: I am assuming from the atheist argument’s standpoint, they would not agree with you that the fact that they naturally love their children is anything other than a subjective decision. Would they argue that millions of individuals make subjective decisions that end up being similar just by happenstance?

Answer: This is the paradox. The fact is – and I’ll say something about this when we get to premise 2 – the majority of philosophers who are atheists believe in objective moral values. They do affirm the objectivity of moral values and moral duties. There are not that many philosophers that I run into who are willing to take the kind of nihilistic line which says there are no moral values or there is no moral knowledge. Most of them really do believe in objective morality. I will say something about that when we get to the second premise. It is a misimpression actually that these intellectuals are all relativists. Actually, they are not. That is more in pop culture than among these academics.8

Question: Do you find the contemporary atheist is as honest about the moral situation as, say, a Nietzsche or a Russell?

Answer: No, I don’t. I do not think they can face the conclusions. I have great admiration for somebody like Nietzsche, even though he was in many ways a pathetic and unhappy man. Nevertheless, Nietzsche had the courage to face the death of God that he proclaimed and to draw unflinchingly the implications from the death of God, namely, the nihilism that results from atheism. It is interesting, in his personal life, Nietzsche couldn’t live like that. You can show in his personal life that he could not live as though moral values were purely subjective. Shortly before he went insane and had to be institutionalized, he was in Torino, Italy, and there was a man mercilessly beating his horse, trying to get it to move his wagon. And Nietzsche, in tears, threw himself around the neck of the horse to try to protect it from the blows of this cruel master who was beating it. Even Nietzsche, the person who declared we should be living beyond good and evil, couldn’t live that way. At least intellectually, he understood the consequences of the death of God that he proclaimed.

Question: Objective moral values depend on a God. And by definition there can only be objective moral values if there is a God, unless they are changing what objective means.

Answer: That is right. You have to watch out for the terminology. That is really true. What will happen is they will affirm objective moral values, but they will quietly change the definition of “objective.” For example, they will say that values that are the product of evolution and of societal conditioning are objective in the sense that they are not just made up by people in the way we have made up rules that in America we drive on the right hand side of the road, whereas in Great Britain they drive on the left hand side. Moral values aren’t like that, they say; they have an objective reality or foundation in that they are the product of evolution, rather than inventions of human beings. And so they change the meaning of “objective” in that sense. Certainly they are objective in the sense that they can be the products of evolution, but they are not objective in the sense that they are valid and binding independent of human opinion. You still have to, by choice, agree that those things that have been instilled into us by evolution are valid and binding. And if you do not make that decision, then there is nothing wrong with that. There is no moral obligation to agree with those things. So you have to be very careful with how the definition works.

Objection: Euthyphro Dilemma

There is one other response that you can be sure to get when you present this argument. This is the so-called Euthyphro Dilemma. The Euthyphro Dilemma is named after a character in one of Plato’s dialogues called Euthyphro. The argument or the dilemma goes like this: is something good just because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good? The claim is that either one of those horns of that dilemma have unacceptable consequences.

If you say that something is good just because God wills it, then that makes morality arbitrary. It means God could have willed that it be good that we hate one another and kill one another and that greed and selfishness be good, and it would be actually evil and sinful to love another person and be compassionate. And that seems crazy.9 So you can’t just say that because God wills something, that makes it good.

On the other hand, if you say that God wills something because it is good, then that means that the good is independent of God. Now it means that God has to look to some higher standard, and what he wills and commands will be in accord with that higher standard. Therefore, morality is not based upon God after all, morality is independent of God. Indeed, in a sense, God himself is subservient to the Good – he himself has to make his life conform to the Good, and he has to fulfill his moral obligations and duties to the Good. So moral values and duties in fact exist independently of God, and that contradicts premise 1.

I do not think that we need to refute either horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma because it is a false dilemma. That is to say, these aren’t the only two choices; there is a third alternative. And that is, God wills something because he is good. Now what do I mean by that? I mean that God’s own nature is the standard of goodness, and his commands to us are necessary expressions of his own moral character. So, in short, our moral duties are determined by the commandments of a just and loving God. Moral values are not independent of God because God’s own character defines what is good. God is essentially compassionate, loving, kind, just, impartial, fair, and so on. His moral nature is the defining standard of what is good. God’s commands reflect his essential nature, they flow necessarily out of his nature, and therefore they are not arbitrary.

What if the atheist asks you, for example, “If God commanded that we should all murder our children, would we be morally obligated to murder our children?’ That question is like asking, “If there were a square circle, would its area be computed by squaring its sides?” It is a meaningless question because the antecedent of the question is logically impossible. There is no such thing as a square circle, so there is no answer to the question. In exactly the same way, to say that if God were to command that everyone commit child abuse, we would then be obligated to do so is a logical incoherence.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma. It presents us with a false choice, and you shouldn’t be fooled by it. The morally good or bad is determined by God’s nature; the morally right or wrong is determined by his commandments or his will. God wills something because he is good, and something is right because God wills it.

This view of morality is being defended in our day by very prominent ethicists like Robert Adams, Philip Quinn, William Alston, and so on. And yet atheists still go on pressing the straw man erected by this Euthyphro Dilemma as though it has never been answered. For example, in the recent Cambridge Companion to Atheism published in 2007 there is an article on God and morality written by a very prominent ethicist, and in this article he refers neither to the work of any of these men nor to the view of ethics that I have been explaining here, but instead the only view that he presents as a theistic based ethics is the view that God just arbitrarily made up moral values. God just made them up! That is a straw man which nobody whom I know defends. So the Euthyphro Dilemma is very, very common in the literature. It is commonly pressed, but in fact it is a false dilemma, and you shouldn’t be misled by it. Again, the answer to the dilemma is neither to say that something is good because God wills it or that God wills something because it is good. The answer is to say that God wills something because he is good.10


Question: What about the cases like when Abraham was commanded to kill Isaac? That would have been murder, had God not commanded it. But because he did, would it have been considered good? Or does the fact that he never actually sacrificed Isaac make this whole point null and void?

Answer: I would say the former. I think that God is able to make exceptions to certain moral commands that he gives in general. So, for example, he can command Abraham to do an act which, had Abraham done it on his own initiative, would have been wrong and it would have been sin. But given the presence of a divine command, it now becomes Abraham’s duty to do it. But I am suggesting it would be contrary to God’s moral nature for there to be a general command that child abuse is good and this is the way we should behave, and loving your children is evil. That is what I am suggesting would be contrary to his nature. But there could be these exceptional cases where God, who is the source of the moral law, can make an exception and command a person to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been wrong but is, in fact, now his moral duty.11


1 Cited in Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (New York: Norton, 2006), 215. Unfortunately, Wolpert’s reference is mistaken. The quotation seems to be a pastiche from Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic, 1996), 133, and Richard Dawkins, “The Ultraviolet Garden,” Lecture 4 of 7 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (1992), http://physicshead.blogspot.com/2007/01/richard-dawkins-lecture-4-ultraviolet.html. (Thanks to my assistant Joe Gorra for tracking down this reference.)

2 5:00

3 10:15

4 14:56

5 20:18

6 A full transcript of this October 2001 debate, along with essays from several people on both sides of the issue, can be found in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

7 25:31

8 30:09

9 35:01

10 40:30

11 Total Running Time: 42:41