Philosophical Evidence

The Morality of Humanity:

The Moral Argument

As a medical student, moral values and duties are matters continually on my mind and in my lectures. However, the development of naturalism as a widespread worldview has led to some uncomfortable and challenging ideas about morality.

The Moral Argument is based on two premises:

  • Premise 1: If the moral code exists, a transcendent, authoritative moral code-giver exists
  • Premise 2: The moral code exists

 

Premise 1: If the moral code exists, a transcendent, authoritative moral code-giver exists

Atheism usually comes with the worldview of naturalism, which is the belief that everything in the universe is physical (so there is no spiritual realm, for example). If an atheist believed in a spiritual realm, most people would not call them an “atheist”. Throughout history, naturalists have come to a realisation that with naturalism comes the death of morality. Friedrich Nietzsche, the atheist philosopher who proclaimed the death of God, is often quoted to have said “Morality is just a fiction used by the herd of inferior human beings to hold back the few superior men”, while Prof. Richard Dawkins eloquently writes in his 1995 book River out of Eden:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom… no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.”1

In a sense, I agree whole-heartedly with Nietzsche and Dawkins. In the naturalistic worldview, morality cannot exist. If our entire human being is exclusively physical, then we are nothing more than biological machines enacting what we are programmed, by our DNA, to do. The act of one person murdering another is as morally neutral as an avalanche killing a skier; the avalanche and the murderer are simply doing what they are programmed to do by their internal physical mechanisms.

So where does the moral code come from? The Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume famously pointed out that the scientific laws and the moral laws are on two different and unbridgeable levels of existence2. He argued that the scientific laws describe what is and is not, while the moral laws describe what ought and ought not to be. As C. S. Lewis explained:

“The [scientific] laws of nature… only mean “what Nature, in fact, does.” But if you turn to the [Moral] Law of Human Nature, it is a different matter. That law certainly does not mean “what human beings, in fact, do”; for many of them do not obey this law at all, and none of them obey it completely. The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave).”3

In order to make the leap from what is to what ought to be, one needs to posit a “moral code giver” that transcends human behaviour, and has the authority to impart the moral code to humans4. However, a transcendent moral code giver who has the authority to give us the moral code is, in essence, a theistic God.

 

Premise 2: The moral code exists

As we look at the world around us, it becomes quickly apparent that a huge number of our institutions, structures, organisations and programmes are foundationally based on the existence of the moral code. In the UK, we have a massive and publically treasured National Health Service. However, any health service anywhere in the world, whether tax-payer, private, or charity funded, is based on a foundational moral value: human health is a good thing. And this single moral value continues to be the reason why some of the most intellectual people in society dedicate their lives to administering healthcare as doctors and nurses.

We can also look to the other enormous institution of our age- the judiciary system. Whether national, international, criminal or civil, all laws are based on a fundamental moral principle: justice is a good thing. Like healthcare, this single moral value continues to lead the brightest minds to careers in which enforcing justice is the ultimate goal.

These are just two of many huge human institutions which are entirely based upon the assumption that the moral code exists. Health and justice cannot be good things if there is no such thing as “good”.

We also can look at our own personal experience to find that the moral code is an integral part of our human existence. It seems logical that the repulsion and grief we feel when we witness or hear about acts of torture, torment or terrorism are grounded in violations of a moral code intrinsic to humanity. Similarly, when we applaud or feel moved by significant acts of heroism, humanity or humility, it is because a real moral good has been fulfilled.

Therefore, from the sociological and psychological evidence, I believe that it is far more probable than not that the moral code exists.

The Moral Argument can thus be concluded with:

  • Premise 1: If the moral code exists, a transcendent, authoritative moral code-giver exists
  • Premise 2: The moral code exists
  • Conclusion: Therefore, a transcendent, authoritative moral code-giver exists

 

Commonest Objections to the Moral Argument

 

#1 Hasn’t morality been evolved?

The Theory of Evolution and its theological implications are huge topics which I do not have the space to look at in much detail in this little booklet5. In short, the Theory of Macroevolution states that we all are descendants of a common unicellular ancestor, and biodiversity is a result of genetic mutation and selection of characteristics that allow individual organisms to survive to the point of reproduction. This theory can be used to explain why some snakes produce venom (to prevent their predation) or why some rodents hibernate (so they do not have to look for food when there isn’t any). However, the moral code cannot be explained as a product of evolution alone for one simple reason- it often does not work in the individual’s self-interest. Evolution selects characteristics that enhance the chance of the individual’s survival to reproduction. However the moral code seems often to work against self-preservation. For example, if I were walking past a lake and saw a desperate person who had fallen in and was splashing around shouting for help, my moral instinct would compel me to help them. And if it came to it, I might jump in to try to rescue them, at the expense of my own self-preservation. This kind of altruistic behaviour cannot be explained by evolution alone, which only functions for the preservation of oneself and one’s genes.

 

#2 Could the moral code be the result of social nurture?

In my experience, this is the mainstream view of non-theistic morality: it is simply a product of our social conditioning. However, this view seems to involve a redefining of what most people know as morality.

There are many examples of codes produced by social norms and structures; we called these “social codes”. For example, it is a social code that men should not go into the women’s toilets. This social code exists because if I (as a man) were to break the code, there would be social consequences for me and those around me. However, a social code also means that if one can avoid the social consequences, the social code does not apply. So if I were a night watchman at a museum and all the other night watchmen were male, then once the museum had been closed and locked for the night, there would be nothing wrong with me using the women’s toilets. The social consequences are absent, so the social code does not apply.

However, a “moral code” is different. A moral code states that certain things are right or wrong regardless of the social consequences. So the moral code would state that it is immoral for me to kill a homeless person with no friends, no family and no job, even if there were no social consequences. In other words, the moral code transcends social structures.

We can look back to the judiciary system to see a striking example of the transcendence of the moral code. Although a lot of laws are confined to nation states, we also have international laws and human rights. It follows that the moral code: “justice is a good thing”, transcends social structures. In fact, history is filled with people who have suffered and died for the moral duty of justice in societies they were not brought up in (so not “conditioned” by).

Our personal experience also shows us that some codes transcend social structures. When I go abroad, there are some codes that I have to adapt to (for example, if I was in Singapore, I would not be seen eating in an underground train). However, there are some codes that would always remain the same in my mind, regardless of the society I ended up in. For example, I would always submit to the moral code that murder is wrong, regardless of which society I found myself in.

Therefore, from structures such as the judiciary system, as well as personal experience, we can deduce that some codes transcend social structures. However, if we have a transcendent code, we require a transcendent code-giver.

 

#3 How can the moral code be transcendent, when people have different ideas of what is moral and immoral?

#4 Is it not true to say that people get their morals, at least in part, from other people e.g. parents?

These two arguments are quite different, but both make the same mistake of confusing epistemology with ontology.

Epistemology is the study of the creation and dissemination of knowledge and beliefs6, while ontology is the study of being and existence6. Let’s say (for the sake of argument) that the moral code exists ontologically. Different people may then discover parts of the moral code in different ways and times. People may also feel that they have discovered some of the moral code, but really have gotten it wrong, and some people may never gain awareness of the moral code at all. However, none of these possible epistemological (belief) scenarios would impact the ontological (actual) existence of the moral code. So “different people have different morals” and “people get their morals from different people/places” (statements of epistemology) would not nullify the evidence for the actual existence of the moral code.

Incidentally, the Christian worldview clearly states that God reveals His moral code to us in different ways, including teaching from other people7, reading the Bible8 (which Christians believe to be the word of God), and also having an in-built awareness that some things are morally right and wrong9.

 

#5 Why should I submit to God’s moral code? How would I know that God’s code is superior to a code written by me or someone else?

These are fantastic questions that cut to the heart of the Christian worldview. In order for us to know if God’s moral code is worth submitting to, we need to find out two things:

  1. Does God know best?
  2. Does God mean best?

Both need to be true in order for God’s moral code to be worth submitting to. If God knows best but does not mean best, he is evil. If God means best but does not know best, he is incompetent. And an evil or incompetent god is not one I would want to obey!

  1. Does God know best?

Simply from the first two arguments in this booklet, I think the answer would be yes. We have already deduced that God is eternal, infinite, incomprehensibly powerful, creator of the universe (and therefore also of you and I), capable of rigging the constants of the universe, and desires our survival. Without opening the Bible, I think one can reasonably conclude that God is powerful and knowledgeable enough to know what is best for us. The Bible goes a little bit further and says that God is all-seeing10 and all-knowing11. However, this is an idea of God that is pretty unanimously accepted; if God exists He is probably all-seeing and all-knowing by definition. So the notion that “God knows best” is fairly uncontroversial.

  1. Does God mean best?

This is a much more contested notion; does God really have our best interests at heart? This is the fundamental difference between deism and theism. Deism is the belief in a god who creates and then “leaves us to it” and has no intention of involving himself with creation. Theism is the belief in a God who cares for and “gets involved” with His creation.

Christianity makes a huge claim in answer to the question “Does God mean best?” Romans 5:8 says: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”12

The Christian claim is that, c.2000 years ago, God took human form in the man of Jesus who then died for us13. Out of all the gestures of love I have come across in my life, I think the biggest is the willingness of one person to die for another. This is how the Bible says God proved that He means best for us.

Obviously this raises many questions. Did Jesus really exist? Was He really God in human form? Did He really die for us?

We are going to investigate all of these questions (and more) in the final two chapters of this booklet. If these huge claims turn out to be true, then we have firm grounds to believe that God both knows best and means best, and therefore his moral code is worth our submission.

 

Notes

  1. Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (Basic Books, 1995), 133
  2. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1739)
  3. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (William Collins, 2012), 16-18 (emphasis added)
  4. Summary of argument by Ravi Zacharias, Nonsense or New Life, org/a-slice-of-infinity (9th May 2012)
  5. For more of my thoughts on the creation/evolution debate, visit:

http://www.benjaminchangblog.com/creation-vs-evolution

  1. Definitions from Standford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
  2. 2 Timothy 2:2
  3. 2 Timothy 3:16
  4. Romans 2:15
  5. Job 28:24
  6. Psalm 147:5
  7. Romans 5:8 (NIV)
  8. John 1:1-18

<- Chapter 2: Scientific Evidence Part 2

Chapter 4: Historical Evidence Part 1 ->

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