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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, July 05, 2013

Defining Morality: Objective Morals Must Be Grounded in God

Last time, we looked at the three main concepts of morality offered today. In that post, I showed why neither the emotive definition nor the subjective definition can properly ground moral values since neither provides a prescription for the way people ought to behave, but only expresses the opinion of the holder. Even if the holder of a moral view is the community at large, it doesn't follow that the community opinion is the moral one. (See my post "Relativism sinks into the quicksand of meaningless morality" for more.)

I'd like to now look at the last definition of morality, that morality is objectively discerned from a source outside of us. If morality is objective, it means that we can hold opinions on moral issues that are wrong; moral duties and values are prescriptive, and they tell us what we should do rather than merely describing what we are doing or what we're most likely to do. This view is also called moral realism, because it holds that moral facts are real and they can be true independent of one's beliefs. Indeed, under moral realism, a moral statement can be true even if no one believes that it is.

However, between those who hold to an objective moral framework, there is still a significant disagreement on where those moral duties and values are rooted. The Christian worldview holds that moral values and duties are binding on the individual simply because these things have the property of being good and right. We are created by a good and righteous God who wishes us to be morally upright, and we are morally aware. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to behave in a morally upright manner. Rightness and wrongness are rooted in God's nature; they are independent of our whims or opinions. This idea doesn't yet account for how we know certain things to be right or wrong, which is a topic that I'll examine in a later post.  But it does say that morality is objective and transcends human opinion.

Others, such as naturalists, offer that morality is rooted in the way the world works. That is, they hold that morality is simply describing actions that allow human beings to thrive. If people were to be more selfish or less altruistic then we as a species would not do as well. They argue that values like cooperation and empathy give human beings an advantage in a hostile world and since that advantage falls outside of only human opinion, this qualifies as an objective morality.

There are several problems with this view of morality, though. First, it isn't clear at all how certain moral constraints actually work in such a view.  I've offered an example in the past of seeking to euthanize felons sitting on death row in order to harvest their organs. The inmate is sentenced to die anyway and the organs can possibly go to someone who can greatly benefit the society. Beyond this, the government is spared from spending all that money housing the inmate.

Secondly, an idea such as the equality of all human beings doesn't naturally follow from such a view. Certainly, there are incredible differences in the aptitude of each person. If the Darwinian view of natural selection is to hold, then the weaker humans must give way to the stronger, fitter ones. To protect the weaker is to actually inhibit the advancement of the species, as the proponents of the eugenics movement argued a century ago. Darwinian natural selection only works when the best of any species is allowed to overtake (e.g. leave the most offspring") its competitors. Certainly, the only true competitor to a Nietzschean superman is the common man who completes with him for resources.  I think that Michael Ruse got it right when they said that "morality simply does not work (from a biological perspective), unless we believe that it is objective.  Darwinian theory shows that, in fact, morality is a function of (subjective) feelings but it shows also that we have (and must have) the illusion of objectivity."[1]

Lastly, it seems to me that in assuming human flourishing is itself an intrinsic good, the naturalist is actually begging the question. He assumes that good exists in stating that human beings should be able to flourish, and then argues that these steps will lead to that end. But why should one assume that the universe is ordered in a way to desire human flourishing if God is not at the center of it? If the laws of nature are all there is, then it seems pretty obvious that nature is indifferent to whether human beings continue or go extinct. Would the naturalist conclude that the mass extinction of dinosaurs was a moral travesty in wiping out the dominant species on the planet? If not, why?  Perhaps our culture is simply a stepping stone for the cockroaches that will evolve in some 200 million years to flourish on the earth.

When looking at morality, we can see that in order for morals to have force, they must be objective in nature, and in order for them to be objective, they need to be rooted in something bigger than ourselves. God is the only source from which concepts such as right and wrong or good and bad can stem.  Other systems ultimately break down. Without an external lawgiver, moral laws become either opinion or assumptions, neither of which would be binding on all people.


1. Ruse, Michael. Taking Darwin Seriously. (New York: Prometheus Books, 1988. 253.

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