Going Deeper with the Moral Argument
In his excellent book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller defines "moral obligation" like this: ‘Moral obligation is a belief that some things ought not to be done regardless of how a person feels about them within herself, regardless of what the rest of her community and culture says, and regardless of whether it is in her self-interest or not.’
The argument I presented was this:
- If God does not exist, we have no moral obligations
- We do have moral obligations
- Therefore God exists
(To hear my explanation of these points, click here).
In some ways, this is a very weak argument because (I confess) I cannot prove point 2. I can't prove that our sense that some things are objectively wrong is anything more than an ultimately meaningless by-product of evolution (which we are free to dismiss if we so choose).
So why did I present an argument which hinges on a point I cannot prove?!
I used this argument because, whilst I cannot prove point 2, I’m not sure I really need to. In hindsight, the argument would have been clearer if I had presented it like this:
- Most people believe that some things really are wrong,
regardless of human opinion
- If God does not exist, this is not true
- Therefore, if it is true that some things are wrong,
regardless of human opinion, it is also true that God exists.
Let’s look at this in more depth.
Question: Is it true that most people believe some things are wrong, regardless of human opinion?
I think it is. Let’s imagine you were to walk into a pub and say to the first person you met: do you believe it’s objectively wrong to kill innocent children for fun? Most people would say “yes” without a moment’s hesitation. Now let’s imagine you ask a second question: if, for some strange reason, you and every human-being on the planet decided it was okay to kill innocent children for fun, would that then make it okay? I think most people would say “no, of course not”. In other words, most people believe that some things really are wrong, regardless of human opinion.
Question: Is it really the case that, if God does not exist, the above isn't true?
This is what intelligent, logically consistent atheists like Richard Dawkins freely acknowledge. Lest I should cause any misunderstanding, let me be clear: Richard Dawkins is not a moral monster – I have no doubt that he feels that killing innocent children for fun is wrong, just as strongly as the rest of us. But as an athiest, Dawkins has to conclude that this feeling really is just a subjective feeling based on how our brains happen to have evolved. And so Dawkins has to acknowledge that, in a world without God, ‘there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’.
Dawkins logic is sound here. As I argued in the lecture, ‘if there is no design to this universe, if there is no rhyme or reason to it, if we and everything in it are the products of sheer chance; then, by definition, nothing is objectively “right” or “wrong”’. In this scenario, our evolved brains may make us feel that killing innocent children is wrong – but that’s just the way we happen to have evolved – whether we heed those feelings is purely up to us.
The philosopher and atheist, Michael Ruse, makes the same point, ‘humans have an awareness of morality because such awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than hands and feet and teeth...ethics is illusory’.
To recap then: it is only true that ‘some things are wrong, regardless of human opinion’ if we and this universe have been designed to function in a certain way – if, in other words, there is a cosmic Designer whose design and desires transcend human opinion.
Which leads to point 3: if it is true that ‘some things really are wrong, regardless of human opinion’ (as most people believe), it is also true that God exists.
Clearly, if you don’t believe that some things are objectively wrong, this argument for God’s existence is irrelevant. However, I’m inclined to think that most (if not all) people do believe that some things really are wrong, regardless of human opinion.
Whilst athiests like Dawkins and Ruse argue that our sense of objective moral obligation is merely an evolutionary illusion, I can’t help but wonder (as a former sceptic myself) whether they are as confident of this as they claim. For example, the degree of (very justified) anger many athiests feel against the terrible things which are sometimes done in the name of religion seems to betray a heartfelt and sincere belief that these things really are wrong (and I wholeheartedly agree!).
As Keller observes, ‘People who laugh at the claim that there is a transcendent moral order do not think that racial genocide is just impractical or self-defeating, but that it is wrong. The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it.’
Personally, I think Keller is right – what they did was (objectively) wrong.
Of course, we must all decide for ourselves. However, as this argument points out, if we do come to the conclusion that some things really are wrong, we should acknowledge that this can only be true if a God of some kind exists.
I hope you’ve found this of interest, I’ll post some more thoughts on how this argument applies to other areas of life in the near future.