DOES MORALITY REQUIRE GOD? by John B. Hodges
One argument often used by Christians trying to prove the existence of their God is as follows: If God does not exist, then there are no objective moral values. There are objective moral values. Therefore, God exists.
Those who use this argument also claim that Atheists cannot have any basis for acting morally; they grudgingly admit that Atheists can act morally, but insist that we have no rational, secular grounds for doing so.
For example, William Lane Craig is a Christian Apologist who has made a career of debating Atheists in public forums. His manner and delivery are smooth, authoritative, professional. Many people find him persuasive. To prove the existence of his God, Craig uses the moral argument, among others.
For example, On Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1998, Craig debated Atheist philosopher Antony Flew at the University of Wisconsin. Sue A. Strandberg wrote, in her review of the debate:
Craig then made an emotional appeal to our sense that our ethics are also the result of transcendent design: if there is no God, then there can be no Objective Moral Values. He interprets this to mean that, without Objective Values, there is no reason to have any values at all: the death of God means the death of meaning. Craig here gave a sad and sorry picture of the kind of universe this would be, and then proceeded to assert that, in this bleak "Atheist view," there could be "nothing wrong with rape." Since we know that "some things are really wrong," then Objective Values exist, which means that God must exist.
Peter La Casse wrote another review of the same debate:
Dr. Craig stated that without God, there is no reason why objective moral laws must exist. That is not to say that people who do not believe in God cannot live moral lives; the question is, are there objective moral standards without God? The answer is no: without God, there is no reason to believe in objective moral standards. Yet we all (or most of us) recognize that there are objective moral standards: rape, murder, etc. are morally wrong.
This argument is very important. The contemporary writer Kay Nolte Smith (1932-1993) wrote:
"Our world, even at its most rational, has never fully rejected the... supernatural, which has been kept alive by the church. And the church is kept alive because it has a stranglehold on the idea of Good and Evil. Human beings need a code of good and evil to live by, and whatever else the church has had to abandon over the centuries, it has convinced most of the world that morality belongs to religion. Witness the historical split between science and ethics, recognized by most thinkers... As long as religion maintains its virtual monopoly on morality, it will be a significant force... and as long as we have religion, two things will keep taking place in the name of God: fraud and destruction."
What can we say about this argument? The claim that morality can only come from God, that there are no rational secular grounds for morality, is a large claim. God might say, for example, that we should eat fish on Fridays. He could just as well have told us to eat fish on Wednesdays, or eat turnips on Fridays. Such orders are completely arbitrary; there is no reason behind them and no sense in them. We have no reason for following them other than that God commanded them. The moral argument for the existence of God says that morality is like this also; there is no reason not to kill, steal, lie, rape, or whatever, other than that God said not to. Indeed, if God had commanded the opposite, we would be morally required to kill, steal, lie, rape, or whatever God commanded.
My thesis is: Religious morality is subjective. Secular morality CAN be objective.
Some definitions, from Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition.
OBJECTIVE: ... in the realm of sensible experience, independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers; having reality independent of the mind.... perceptible to persons other than the affected individual... OBJECTIVISM: an ethical theory that moral good is objectively real or that moral precepts are objectively valid.
SUBJECTIVE: ... belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind;... conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states... arising out of or identified by means of one's perception of one's own states and processes.. SUBJECTIVISM: a doctrine that the supreme good is the realization of a subjective experience or feeling... a doctrine that individual feeling is the ultimate criterion of the good and the right.
ABSOLUTE: characteristic of a ruler or authority completely free of constitutional or other restraints... having no restriction, exception, or qualification... being self-sufficient and free of external references or relationships...
RELATIVE: a thing having a relation or connection with or necessary dependence on another thing... not absolute or independent... RELATIVISM: (a) a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing... (b) a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them.
Notice that the two meanings of "relativism" differ in important ways. The scientific method of seeking knowledge admits that its conclusions are relative to, dependent on, the (objective) evidence gathered so far, and may be changed by new evidence. In ethics, "relativism" commonly refers to a particular view, "cultural relativism", that ethics are a matter of (subjective) individual or majority opinion. These are two different uses of the word, which must be kept distinct.
"Objective" and "absolute" are not the same, "subjective" and "relative" are not the same. Objective things can be relative, subjective opinions can be held absolutely. Religious morality, for some religions, may be "absolute" in the sense defined above- there is really only one commandment, "Obey the will of God, as reported by the priesthood." When a believer says that his morality is "absolute", it means he is resolutely determined not to apply any of his own intelligence to moral questions. When he says it is universal and unchanging, it means his morality is indifferent to the consequences of trying to follow it in the real world. He may also mean that he is willing to apply whatever force may be necessary to make everyone else bow down to his own chosen Lord.
Is religious morality "objective"? In Protestant Christianity alone there are thousands of denominations, with teachings that differ on every moral issue. There are (regarding violence) pacifists and imperialists; (regarding money) capitalists and communists, millionaires and ascetics; (regarding sex) celibates, polygamists, anti-birth-control activists, and gay churches. If the Bible is supposed to give us "objective" moral standards, it seems to be very easy to misinterpret.
Religious morality is not "objective" because it depends crucially on faith. It is not "perceptible to all observers". It requires a revelation, or at least an alleged revelation. The messenger proclaims the message, and the ordinary working stiffs who hear him have to decide if this is a real prophet, or some con artist or demagaogue who has plans to use them. After all, there is a different alleged revelation down the block. Those of us who live many centuries later have to hope the words of the prophets are reported and translated accurately, for, as Jeremiah said, "actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely". (Jer. 8:8)
If someone calls you on the telephone and says they are working for a good cause, what reason do you have to believe them? Last year Americans were taken for $40 Billion dollars by fraudulent telephone callers. If you know someone face to face in some OTHER way, and you then recognize their voice over the phone, then you have reason to trust what they say; but a stranger calling could be anyone. So, let us assume that the Biblical prophets are honorable men; all, all honorable men. A prophet hears a voice coming out of the air, out of a burning bush, or whatever, and the voice says: "I am Yahveh, King of the Universe. I am the Creator of all things." How do they know, how CAN they know, whether this Yahveh character is telling the truth? We don't even know if this is the real Yahveh, much less the real Creator of the Universe. We don't know if it was the same voice speaking to different prophets. The voice could be some imp or sprite about three inches tall, playing a practical joke. It could be a demon with darker plans. Is this Yahveh really the Creator of the Universe, as he claims, or is he perhaps some local ghost? Perhaps Yahveh is lying, as he has sometimes done. (1 Kings 22, 2 Chronicles 18, Ezekiel 14:9, 2 Thessolonians 2:11-12.) Perhaps Yahveh is giving bad laws deliberately, as he boasted in Ezekiel 20:25. All this has to be decided subjectively.
Can secular philosophers offer an "objective" morality? I will outline a case that (1) The basics of right and wrong are not relative to culture, but are necessarily common to all human cultures; (2) Moral precepts can be objectively valid, testable by scientific methods, capable of confirmation (or disproof) by independent observers; (3) While it is true that values are subjective- things have value because people value them- and therefore the basics of good and evil are relative to goals adopted voluntarily by individuals- everything good is good TO somebody FOR something- nevertheless (4) There is a "default goal" that would be "natural" to human beings, would be expected to be attractive to the vast majority of the population, and provides our intuitive feelings that certain things are "obviously" good or evil.
Craig reportedly says that "Atheists say that human beings are just animals, and animals don't have morality. Thus Atheists don't believe in morality." Craig is misinformed; some animals are social animals, who survive by cooperating in groups. Social animals have morality. See THE BIOLOGY OF MORAL SYSTEMS by Richard Alexander and GOOD NATURED by Frans De Waal. Morality serves the function of maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations among group members. So, there will be some basics that are universal to all groups.
In THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY, (an introductory textbook), James Rachels writes (p. 129): "The key idea [of the social contract approach to ethics] is that morally binding rules are the ones that are necessary for social living. It is obvious... that we could not live together very well if we did not accept rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying, breaking promises, and the like. These rules are justified simply by showing that they are necessary if we are to cooperate for our mutual benefit."
Human beings are social animals; we have been living in groups for longer than we have been human. We are more social than any other species; the largest insect societies have a few million individuals, humans cooperate in societies of hundreds of millions, even billions. Humans are predisposed to learn morality in early childhood, in the same way we are predisposed to learn language. See THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF HUMAN NATURE by Alfie Kohn, and THE MORAL SENSE by James Q. Wilson.
How is this social-contract type of morality "objective"? It is made entirely of hypothetical oughts, of the form "If you want X, then you ought to do Y". Hypothetical oughts describe a causal relation between means and ends that is objectively true or false. An ethic made of hypothetical oughts is called a "consequentialist" morality. There is some desired goal specified; whether an action is right or wrong, good or bad, is determined by the objective consequences of the act FOR the ultimate goal of the ethic. In the case of social-contract morality, "If you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, don't kill, steal, lie, or break agreements." As Shakespeare wrote, "It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this."
Social-contract morality is the ethics of Peace. It can set the minimum standards of right and wrong. But there are many different possible ways a peaceful and cooperative society might function. Beyond the ABC's of right and wrong described above, necessary to the cohesion and cooperative functioning of any group, cultural relativism would seem to be a serious contender. Is there any universal standard of "desirability", that gives the ABC's of good and evil? Can we say that some groups, some societies, are "better" than others?
There is one standard that is favored by natural selection, and thus would be expected to be used by the vast majority of people, consciously or unconsciously. That is the ethics of Health.
There is a built-in goal of biological life, genetic reproductive success, also called "inclusive fitness" by biologists. For nonhuman life, this goal could be described as "promote the health of your family", where "health" is defined as "survival ability" and "family" is "all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes". Human beings are a special case in at least two ways. First, our self-awareness and free will give us the ability to choose our goals; inclusive fitness is only the "default option", toward which our nature will incline us unless we consciously choose to pursue something else. Second, humans are more than carriers of genes; we have original thoughts, we create, receive, modify, and transmit culture. Therefore, for human beings, "inclusive fitness" would as legitimately include our cultural kin as our genetic kin.
What is the purpose of nonhuman life? Reproductive success is the goal that almost all living organisms pursue, because they follow their internal urges uncritically. Their internal urges are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for. In short, the default goal of biological life is to raise kids; failing that, help your kinfolk raise kids.
What is the goal of human life? We have our choice on that. We can, and do, override our internal urges by our will. Under the influence of religion, we can talk ourselves into lifelong celibacy, even mass suicide. We live and die for "causes" that care not whether we live or die. Being intelligent and verbal, we can become distant from our underlying biological nature. But most of us feel the pull of our nature nonverbally. The goal that many people pursue unconsciously, and which I advocate adopting consciously, is "promote the health of your circle". The boundaries of your circle are your choice, but it would be entirely natural to include yourself, your genetic kin and descendants, your cultural kin and descendants. (There are no sharp natural boundaries to kinship, either genetic or cultural, but near kin commonly receive more concern than distant kin.) If you have no personal interest in raising kids, or in helping your kinfolk raise kids, then contribute something to the culture.
Adopting this as your ultimate goal gives an ethic that is consequentialist, objective, and Aristotelian. "Health", defined as "survival ability", implies other derivative values. The more knowledge you have, the more friends you have, the more freedom, the more wealth, the more wisdom, other things being equal, the greater your ability to survive, and promote the survival of your circle.
By this standard, societies can be judged better or worse according to whether they are a "healthy" place for your kin "unto all generations" to live in. The ultimate goal of the ethics of Health is Sustainable Civilization. Reading the history of life on Earth has impressed me with the rarity and value of "the way we live now". For three billion years the highest form of life was blue-green algae. For a million years the human species made fire and stone tools, and lived by hunting and gathering in small tribes. For ten thousand years most of us lived by peasant agriculture, which is no fun. It would be a great tragedy if our civilization crashed and burned a few hundred years after discovering the scientific method. I would like to see a civilization based on reason and freedom last for geological ages.
If our civilization is to be long-lived, we must face the challenge of sustainability- stabilizing our population, establishing a long- lived peace, developing forms of industry that do not poison our water and air, forms of agriculture that do not create deserts, energy sources that will supply us for millennia. For our long-term health, we will also want to develop the ability to alter the orbits of the apollo asteroids, whose orbits cross the orbit of Earth. Colonizing the solar system would not be a bad idea, either.
Fairy-tales about the supernatural are not necessary to give meaning or purpose to life. Instead of seeking a ticket to Heaven by being an obedient slave on Earth, we can gain meaning by taking a positive role in history, seeking to make this Earth a better place.
John B. Hodges