googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: What is morality?

Monday, April 30, 2018

What is morality?

The existence of objective morality is one of the most powerful arguments for the existence of God. However, some critic don't get the argument. Well, maybe they don't get it. Or maybe they do get it and intentionally misrepresent the argument so they can create a strawman. I'm not sure which. Here's an example of someone who doesn't seem to get it:

The idea that atheists have no reason to be moral without a god or religion may be the most popular and repeated myth about atheism out there. It comes up in a variety of forms, but all of them are based on the assumption that the only valid source of morality is a theistic religion, preferably the religion of the speaker which is usually Christianity. Thus without Christianity, people cannot live moral lives. (Thought.co)

Yikes! That's bad. Rather than accusing Thought.co of deliberately misstating the argument, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and work with the assumption that the author simply doesn't understand the problem. In this post, I hope to bring into focus the foolishness of believing in there can be objective morality in a godless universe.

First, we have to understand what makes something wrong. I checked several definitions and found they all suffer from the same weakness. Merriam-Webster, for example, defines “wrong” as, an injurious, unfair, or unjust act : action or conduct inflicting harm without due provocation or just cause. That's an OK definition, I guess, but it still doesn't answer the question of what makes something wrong. In other words, why is it wrong to be unfair or unjust? Why is it wrong to harm someone?

Implicit in every definition of wrong is the idea that something is not the way “it ought to be.” To say it's wrong to be unfair, implies that things ought to be fair. Get it? So for anyone to believe something is wrong, there needs to be an objective understanding of how that thing ought to be instead. In a godless, purposeless universe, how would we know how things ought to be? Could it be wrong, for example, for water to freeze at 32°F? Of course not because there is no other objective temperature at which we could say water should freeze instead!

If the universe were undesigned and purposeless, we can only describe how things are – not how they ought to be. If we think something should be different, that is only a preference and not an objective standard. Consider the candy, Starbursts. I like the red flavor. Maybe most people like red, I don't know. But I think people who like orange are crazy. In fact, I think people who eat orange Starbursts are evil! Does that make any sense? It certainly doesn't. It's gibberish. My preference is only my preference and there is no “correct” flavor of candy. Preferences can change over time but none are ever “right.”

Consider now a more substantial subject – like slavery. Most people would agree that the type of slavery once practiced in the US was wrong. However, it used to be legal. Obviously, there were slave owners in the south that didn't believe it was wrong. What makes our opinion right and theirs wrong? Some might say it's because our morals have evolved (improved over time) since then. OK, then let's look at another issue – abortion. In the US now, abortion is legal. What would pro-abortion advocates say if, 100 years from now, people viewed our generation with the same outrage that we view slave owners? They might ask how we could allow such a cruel and immoral thing to be practiced. Would they be wrong then? Or are we wrong now?

You see, if there is no immutable, objective standard of morality, then issues like slavery or abortion can never be viewed as right or wrong; they are only practiced or not practiced as our opinions change. So when an unbeliever attacks my faith by telling me the Bible condones slavery or that Saul committed genocide against the Amalekites, it sounds to me like he's speaking gibberish. He might as well be saying the Bible condones eating orange Starbursts.

This brings me back to my opening point. The Thought.com article quoted above said, “The idea that atheists have no reason to be moral without a god or religion may be the most popular and repeated myth about atheism out there.” No Christian apologist, to my knowledge, has ever said that atheists can't be moral. Nor has anyone said atheists don't have a reason to be moral. What we're saying is that, if atheism were true, then there can be no such thing as morality. There are only shifting preferences that are about as objective as the correct flavor of gum. When atheists claim to be moral, or share their opinions of Christian morality, they are acting in ways not consistent with their stated belief. It's irrational. It is like a person who claims to not believe in gravity but still knows he would die if he jumped off a building.

Genesis 1:31 says, And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.God created a “very good” world so we know that there is a way things ought to be. Sin is when we disobey God. When we sin, we are judged. The Bible says the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Sin and death were not part of God's original creation. They are not the way things ought to be. There can only be such things as good and evil because there is a God! It's not that I believe in God because it sort of make sense. I know there is a God because that is the only thing that makes sense!

Further reading:



1 comment:

Steven J. said...

In other words, why is it wrong to be unfair or unjust? Why is it wrong to harm someone?

Why is it wrong to go against how God wants things to be? It is just some ineffable property of God, like being uncreated and uncaused, that His personal preferences become objectively "good?" Or is it that God, unlike the universe, can punish or reward us eternally after we're dead? The latter is pretty much an argument that might makes right and absolute might makes absolute right (and suppose you just don't care about post-mortem rewards or punishments, and are not motivated or deterred by such things?).

The former just seems an ad hoc assertion: the classic retort is that if God commanded us to torture children, would that become objectively the morally right thing to do, or would God not do that because torturing children is wrong for some reason other than His arbitrary declaration that it be so considered? Are there, in short, objective facts about us that make some things good and some bad?

Some atheists, such as Sam Harris and Steven Pinker, have argued that there are. Humans, pretty much universally, share standards of things that are unfair, unjust, or harmful to themselves, and to members of their in-group. "Moral advances" are largely instances of extending that in-group, or of recognizing that there is no objective reason to suppose that not hurting the in-group is more important than not hurting people in general. We desire the good of members of the in-group and share a lot of ideas about what is "good" in this sense.

Most people would agree that the type of slavery once practiced in the US was wrong. However, it used to be legal. Obviously, there were slave owners in the south that didn't believe it was wrong. What makes our opinion right and theirs wrong?

Not any clear biblical declaration. Enslaved blacks were an out-group, very closely analogous to the non-Israelites whom the Israelites were allowed by the Mosaic law to keep as hereditary chattels (temporarily enslaved Israelites, in turn, were more analogous to white indentured servants). Abolitionists could point to general biblical principles like "love your neighbor" and the golden rule; pro-slavery factions could point that the many verses in the Bible that clearly accepted slavery and the right to own other people.

Richard Dawkins has raised this point: if atheists trying to justify their moral views are building an ideological edifice on a foundation of quicksand, pretty much everyone except ISIS fanatics is in the same position. It's very hard to find a modern Christian who will defend actual biblical teachings on slavery, or the treatment of the Canaanites or Amalekites, so they argue that the Bible actually teaches something that they are willing to defend, no matter what violence this does to the clear meaning of the text.