Existence of God (part 22)

March 06, 2011     Time: 00:31:53


The Moral Argument.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ IV. Moral Argument
Lecture 4

We have been talking about the Moral Argument for God’s existence, and today we want to finally draw this discussion to a close by looking at the second premise of that argument, which is objective moral values and duties do exist.

Defense of Premise (2)

I initially thought that this was going to be the really controversial premise in the argument; that it would be almost impossible to convince people that objective moral values and duties really do exist. But I must say that, in my debates with atheist philosophers, what I have found is that almost nobody denies this premise. Virtually everyone, if you push them far enough, will affirm the existence of some objective moral values and duties.

Philosophers who reflect upon our moral experience find no more reason to deny that experience than our experience of the physical world. We trust our physical senses to tell us that there is a world of physical objects out there, unless we have some good reason to think that our senses are misfiring. There are such things as mirages or such illusions as when the stick placed in the jar of water looks bent, but we know that it is not. So sometimes our physical perceptions are mistaken. But nobody thinks that that would justify a sort of overwhelming skepticism that says there is no physical world out there, you are just a body lying in the Matrix experiencing a virtual reality. In the absence of some overwhelming defeater, we are perfectly rational to trust our sensory experience that there is a world of physical objects around us.

Similarly, in exactly the same way, in the absence of some sort of a reason to distrust my moral experience, I am rational to believe that there are objective moral values and duties – that there are things that are objectively good and evil or right and wrong. Most all of us would agree that we do experience objective moral values and duties. They impose themselves upon us.

I remember I was speaking several years ago at a Canadian University, and as I walked through the hall I saw a poster on the wall posted by the Sexual Assault and Information Center. And it read, “Sexual Assault: No one has the right to abuse a child, a woman, or a man.” Now think about that. I think most of us would recognize that that is true. But a naturalist, an atheist, can’t make any sense out of a person’s right not to be sexually abused. In nature, whatever is, is right. And yet most of us recognize the truth of that sign – that sexual abuse like rape, pedophilia, torture, or incest are really morally wrong. By the same token, we recognize that things like love, self-sacrifice, generosity are really good.

People who fail to see the difference between these are just like people who are blind. A physically blind person doesn’t have an accurate perception of the world of physical objects around him, but that doesn’t cause us to doubt our physical perceptions of reality. In the same way, the person who can’t see the difference between nurturing and loving a child versus torturing and abusing that child is just morally handicapped; he is morally blind. There is no reason to let his moral inhibition cause us to doubt what we do clearly perceive. Thus, any argument for moral skepticism would have to be based upon premises which are less obvious than premise (2) of the Moral Argument, that there are moral values and duties that are objective.

I have found, frankly, that when you talk with most people, 95% or more – although they may at first give some lip service to relativism – very rapidly can be convinced that there are objective moral values and duties. Just give them a few illustrations to make the point.1 For example, ask what they think of the ancient Hindu practice called “sutee” which was put to a halt by the British when they colonized India. In sutee they would take the widow of a man who had died, and they would throw her alive onto his funeral pyre, and she would be burned alive along with her husband’s body. Ask if they think that is a moral thing to do to a woman. Or take the ancient Chinese practice of binding the feet of little girls so tightly as to resemble lotus blossoms that they would be permanently crippled for life. Is that really a moral thing to do to a little girl? Or you can make the point really effectively by using examples of abuse by Christians. The Crusades, for example, or the Spanish Inquisition. Do they think they were morally indifferent? Ask them what they think about Catholic priests who abuse little boys and then the Church trying to cover it up by just shifting that priest to another diocese without actually disciplining him. Don’t they think that that would be wrong to do? I can almost guarantee you that if you are dealing with someone who is really honest and sincere, then he will very quickly come to agree that there are objective moral values and duties.

Of course, occasionally you will find some hardliners who will just bite the bullet and say there are no objective moral values and duties. But I think that this position is seen by most people to be so extreme that they become very quickly repulsed by it. For example, several years ago I attended a session of the Society of Biblical Literature on “Biblical Authority and Homosexuality.” All of the panelists on this panel endorsed the practice of homosexual activity – that this was morally permissible. And one panelist justified this by saying that the biblical prohibitions of such activity just reflect the cultural context in which the biblical author wrote and that, therefore, they are not timeless ethical truths. They are just reflections of that biblical culture. But that is the case for all of Scripture’s commands! They weren’t written in a vacuum. They all reflect the culture in which they were written. This would imply that there are no Scriptural truths that are normative and timeless, and so this panelist concluded, “There are no timeless, normative moral truths in Scripture.” During the discussion period, I got up and I said, “If there aren’t any timeless, normative moral truths in Scripture, then doesn’t that just lead to socio-cultural relativism? So you could not condemn even a culture which practices the discrimination and abuse of homosexuals. You are actually sanctioning anti-homosexual behavior by what you are saying!” And he responded to this with a fog of theological double-talk and said that basically there is no place outside of Scripture either where we can find timeless, normative moral truths. And I said, “But then that just is ethical relativism. You are just saying there are no objective, normative values or duties. And that just is moral relativism.” “In fact,” I said, “On your view, there is no content to the affirmation that God is good. What does it mean to say that God is good if there are no objective moral values? He might as well be dead!” And I pointed out Nietzsche thought that the death of God meant moral nihilism, that there is no objective moral value or duty in life. At that point another panelist came in with a peremptory remark – she said, “Well, if you are going to get pejorative about it, we might as well not talk about it!” And, well, that was meant to stop the debate right there! So I sat down. But the point wasn’t lost on the audience. A man then got up in the audience and said, “I am a pastor, and people are always coming to me, asking me if they have done something wrong and if they need forgiveness. For example, isn’t it always wrong to abuse a child?” And still this woman on the panel would not admit it! She said, “What counts as abuse differs from society to society. So we can’t really use the word ‘abuse’ without tying it to a historical context.” Well, the pastor didn’t quit! He said, “You call it whatever you want, but the fact is, abuse is damaging children. Isn’t it always wrong to damage children?” And she still wouldn’t admit it! And I think this kind of hardness of heart ultimately backfires upon the atheist and really exposes in the mind of most people the bankruptcy of such a worldview.2

So in our moral experience, I think we have every good reason to affirm the reality of objective moral values and duties, unless there is some overriding defeater that should cause us to think otherwise.


Question: Isn’t there a difference in your examples? Sutee is an example where an entire population practices it [i.e. is condoned by society] but abuse by Catholic priests was behavior that was abhorrent in our society. Is that a relative judgment we are making on that society?

Answer: I would argue that it is not relative. The fact that a whole culture can participate in misbehavior is no reason at all to think that what they are doing is morally indifferent and is good. And surely we have examples of that in, for example, Nazi Germany. National Socialism had an ethic in which it was not immoral to kill Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, and other undesirables; and they sent 11 million people to the gas chambers and ovens. Or take South Africa, where people were delegitimized simply on the basis of their skin color. I think we should have no reason to say that entire societies and cultures do not sometimes participate in immoral behavior. So the number of people doing it doesn’t affect the objective rightness or wrongness.

Question: I guess it gets hard when you try to decide which values are objective and which are not. For example, would you say homosexual activity is objectively morally wrong, and on what basis would you say this?

Answer: What this question is asking is, “What is the content of our moral values and duties?” And I have not taken a position on that. That is quite open for debate. But this is a discussion of what is called “moral ontology,” that is to say, what the foundations of duty and ethics are. You are asking a question about “applied ethics” or “practical ethics,” that is, “Is this really wrong?” That is not germane to the argument. That is important and interesting, but it is not germane to either premise.

To answer your question directly, I do think that homosexual activity is morally wrong, and I would say that on the basis of God’s revelation in Scripture. I have good reason to believe that Scripture is a revelation from God, that God’s commands to us supply our moral duties, and that he has prohibited this activity, and therefore it is wrong. Moral duties are rooted in the divine commands; values are rooted in God’s nature. So if God were to command us not to eat beans, I would say it would be immoral to eat beans. God has the right to prohibit that. And, in fact, he did prohibit certain things in the Old Testament arbitrarily that shouldn’t be eaten. Or certain types of cloths or tissues should not be put together, like linen and wool and so forth. Those, then, become moral duties for us to obey and they are objective because they are rooted in God’s commands and in his very nature.

Objection: Socio-Biological Evolution

What objection might be raised to trusting our moral experience? You remember I talked about the socio-biological account of the origin of moral beliefs. Many people think that our moral beliefs are spin-offs of biological and social evolution and conditioning. Some might say that this socio-biological account of the origins of morality undermines our moral experience. But is this true? Does the socio-biological account of the origins of morality undermine or give us reason to distrust our moral experience?3

Think about that. On the one hand, the socio-biological account, if true, does nothing to undermine the truth of our moral beliefs. To think that it undermines the truths of our moral beliefs is to commit the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy attempts to invalidate a person’s point of view by showing how he came to hold it. For example, “The only reason why you believe in democracy is because you were raised in the West. If you had been raised somewhere else, you would not, maybe, believe in democracy.” Or, “The only reason that you believe in the Big Bang theory is because you were raised in modern times of astronomy and culture.” This is an attempt to invalidate a person’s belief by showing how that belief originated. And that is simply fallacious because how a person came to arrive at a belief is independent of the truth of the belief. You may have acquired your moral beliefs by reading a comic book or through divining tea leaves in the bottom of a tea cup. That doesn’t do anything to say that your moral beliefs are therefore untrue.

If God exists, then he is the foundation of moral values and duties regardless of how we come to apprehend them or come to learn about them. So, at best, the socio-biological account would prove that our perception of the moral realm is the product of a gradual and fallible evolution. But it wouldn’t show that objective moral values and duties do not exist, just that we come to perceive them in this gradual and fallible way. But if moral values and duties objectively exist and are grounded in God, then our gradual, fallible apprehension of the moral realm does nothing more to undermine the objectivity of that realm than our gradual, fallible apprehension of the physical world undermines the objectivity of the physical realm around us. In both cases, there is an objective reality of which we have a gradual, fallible apprehension.

I think that it is clear that the socio-biological account does nothing to undermine the truth of the second premise that objective moral values and duties exist. But, someone might say, maybe the socio-biological account undermines, not the truth of our moral beliefs, but it undermines our justification for those beliefs. If you acquired your moral beliefs through reading tea leaves or a comic book, they might turn out to be true accidentally, but you would not have any good reason for your moral beliefs. They would just happen to be true, but you wouldn’t be able to have any justification for thinking they are true. You wouldn’t know them to be true. And similarly, the objection might be here that if our moral beliefs are the product of biological and social evolution, then we can’t have any confidence in their truth because evolution aims, not at truth, but at survival value. Beliefs are selected by evolution for how well they help the species to survive, not for whether or not they are true. So it could be that our moral beliefs have been selected by evolution because of their survival value, not because of their truth. And therefore we cannot really trust our moral experience and affirm that premise (2) is true. It could be true, but we would not have any justification for believing it to be true.

There are two problems with this objection to our knowledge of premise (2). First of all, the objection assumes that atheism is true. It is question begging. It assumes that atheism is true. If there is no God, then our moral beliefs are just the product of socio-biological evolution. I argued the same thing in my defense of premise (1). If there is no God, then moral values and duties are just the products of the socio-biological process. But that is no reason to think that the socio-biological account is, in fact, true. If God exists, then it is very likely that he would want us to have true moral beliefs.4 Therefore, he would either guide the evolutionary process so as to produce those beliefs or else he would instill them in us in a kind of instinctual way in the way that Romans 2:15 says he has done. He has placed the moral law upon the heart of every person. So only if atheism is true do we have reason to distrust our moral experience. And to assume that atheism is true would be begging the question. Only if atheism is true, do we have reason to distrust our moral experience. So the objection just assumes the truth of atheism and is question- begging.

The second response to this objection is that it is self-defeating; it refutes itself. On atheism, all of our beliefs, not just our moral beliefs, but all of them, are selected for their survival value, not for their truth. Evolution doesn’t aim at truth, it just aims at survivability. And so what the evolutionary account would lead to is not just skepticism about our moral beliefs; it would lead to total skepticism about all of our beliefs. We cannot be confident that anything we believe is true because it is the product of faculties that are just geared toward survival and not toward truth. But then that is self-defeating because then your belief in the theory of evolution and in naturalism is itself the product of these cognitive faculties that are not aimed at truth but at mere survival. And so you couldn’t have any confidence in the objection. So the objection undermines itself. It is like sawing the limb off on which you sit. It attacks the reliability of our rational faculties and thereby undermines itself, since that objection is itself a product of our rational faculties. So the objection itself would be the product of just biological and social conditioning, and we’d have no justification in thinking that it is true.

So the objection based on the socio-biological account to our justification of premise (2) is question-begging because it assumes atheism is true and, secondly, it is self-defeating because if it is correct, you would have no good reason to believe the objection itself.

Summary and Conclusion

Therefore, from the warrant that our moral experience provides for premise (2), we do have good grounds for believing objective moral values and duties do exist.

From the two premises:

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

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

it follows logically and inescapably that

3. Therefore, God exists.

The Moral Argument supplements the two Cosmological Arguments and the Teleological Argument by showing us that this Creator and Designer of the universe is also the locus of absolute moral goodness and the source of all moral value in life. It gives us a personal, necessarily existing being, who is not only perfectly good, but whose very nature is the Good – it is the standard of goodness – and whose commands constitute our moral duties. So this powerfully supplements the arguments we already looked at by filling out the moral nature of God and also reemphasizes that he must be a necessarily existing being to ground necessary values and is also personal because value is lodged in persons.

This is an extremely powerful argument for God’s existence. In fact, I would say that in my experience this Moral Argument is the most compelling argument for the existence of God in the thinking of most people. I say this with reluctance because my favorite is the Cosmological Argument – I really like that one. But the Cosmological Argument doesn’t really connect with people in the way the Moral Argument does. You can brush off these philosophical arguments for the finitude of the past or the scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe.5 But you can’t so easily brush off the Moral Argument. Every day you get up you answer, by how you behave and how you treat other people, whether or not you believe there are objective moral values and duties. So the Moral Argument is inescapable, it hits us at the very core of our beings because every day we answer the question of whether we believe there are objective moral values and duties – it is simply unavoidable.

To revisit that question that we asked at the very beginning of this examination of the Moral Argument, “Can we be good without God?” – the answer is, no, we cannot truly be good without God because only if God exists is there objective moral value and duty in life. We cannot truly be good without God. But if we can, in some measure, be good, then it follows logically that God exists.


Question: So we know the Good does exist, but our coming to know it is dependent on God’s nature to reveal it. God could exist, good could exist, and we could be a world where we only know some truths, like it was before Christ came.

Answer: Even before Christ came, the Scripture says that God has written the moral law on all people’s hearts, so all people in any time and place in history can have an understanding of God’s basic moral law. But certainly God’s will in all its fullness isn’t revealed until Christ comes. That is certainly true. I think you are right in saying that whether or not we do come to a correct apprehension of moral truth is going to be dependent upon God. He is going to need to guide the process, to enlighten our minds, and so forth, by which we come to know moral values. We are going to need the right kind of faculties to apprehend our duties, and that will ultimately depend on him.

Followup: His nature of goodness implies that he wants us to know him.

Answer: I think so. I don’t think that there is a possible world in which God exists, he creates persons in his image, and then he abandons them to utter moral error and doesn’t give them any faculties by which they can know right from wrong. That seems incompatible with God’s goodness and therefore not even logically possible.

Question: The point is, people can be good without knowing God but not if God doesn’t exist.

Answer: Thank you! That is exactly right. This reminds us of the difference between God’s existence and believing in God. The argument is not that you have to believe in God in order to be good; rather the argument is that God must exist in order for goodness to exist.

Question: One of the reasons why I think the Moral Argument is so effective is that many of our morals do not make sense from an evolutionary perspective. For example, if a girl who is 20 years old gave her life to save her grandmother, it would be a completely stupid thing to do from an evolutionary perspective because she could have children and continue humanity, whereas her grandmother obviously cannot.

Answer: Exactly! People like Richard Dawkins look at Mother Teresa, who doesn’t bear children and gives up her life serving the poor, and they think she is an evolutionary misfit. She is a misfiring of nature. So there are lots of other moral arguments as well. I have just focused on one that I find particularly persuasive. But you are right – the adequacy of evolutionary theory to account for altruism and self-sacrifice and so forth is very controverted today and subject of much debate.

Question: Can you comment on the ubiquitous nature of relativism in the media versus the university? I heard it is on its way out.

Answer: I think that although relativism appears ubiquitous in our culture, it is very shallow. I think it is a thin veneer, and when you probe just below the surface, you find people do hold deeply held moral beliefs that are objective in their thinking – belief, for example, in tolerance. Tolerance, open mindedness, and fair play are deeply held beliefs. I remember a book by William Watkins,6 where I thought he got it exactly right. He called it the “new absolutism.” It is not that we live in an age of relativism. We really don’t! We live in an age of new absolutes. The old conservative absolutes like sexual purity, modesty, and so forth have gone by the boards; but in their place there is a set of new absolutes which include things like tolerance, open mindedness, and so forth. And these are deeply held moral beliefs that folks have today.7


1 4:55

2 10:30

3 15:03

4 20:05

5 25:00

6 William Watkins, The New Absolutes, (Bethany House Publishers 1997)

7 Total Running Time: 31:52