A Brief Discussion of Morality
As I recently shared in The Almost Atheist, there was a time in my life when I questioned the Christian Faith. In my years thinking through the big questions, I came to see that while no single knock down argument would convince me that Christianity (or Atheism, or any other belief system) is true, there were many individual points that, upon examination, suggested a larger reality. I came to see these points not as fragmented subjects unrelated to each other, but as individual pieces to a Great Puzzle. When all the “puzzle pieces” were placed carefully together, the picture of the Universe I saw resonated very much with the Christian world picture. This is Puzzle Piece Number One.
Most of us possess a little compass. Not one made of plastic or iron. You can’t hold it in your hands. It is a thing that exists inside of us, as a part of what we are. Our little device detects certain events in the world, and then suggests to us that a response is warranted. It suggests to us that we feel something deep within us when we hear on the news of children being abused by adults. It suggests to us that we feel remorse when we unfairly hurt someone we love. To be sure, not all of our devices are calibrated precisely the same, and we sometimes differ on how to interpret them, occasionally we ignore them, but to be sure, nearly every one of us has one.
To be human is to feel intuitively that some things are “right”, and that other things are “wrong”. But…why do we feel this way? Are our internal moral senses correct in telling us that some things are right and others wrong? What is our compass talking about?
There are different possible answers to this question, a few of which we’ll consider here. But in the end, the question will come down to this: Is our internal moral sense pointing us to anything real, or is it a completely fraudulent, even if useful, device?
Before we begin, let’s get something out of the way. In the paragraphs following this one, I will in no way be suggesting that Christians have a monopoly on morality. I am not suggesting that Atheists or Buddhists or anyone else cannot live overall moral and decent lives. I am not suggesting that Christians always act more righteously than non-Christians. In fact, I will be suggesting something quite different. We are all human beings, and as such, a sense of morality (our little compass), is a part of what we are. One does not have to believe in God as Christians believe in God, or read the Christian Bible to live a relatively moral life. So please, don’t be distracted from what I will say by something I will not say.
Back to the question at hand: Is our internal moral sense pointing us to something real, or to a polite illusion?
One potential answer to this question that is offered by some Atheists, is to say that what we call morality is a byproduct of human evolution. In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous living Atheist, promotes the view that morality does not “have its roots in religion”[i], but can explained purely by Darwinian processes. He reasons that our perception of morality likely predates religion, and therefore cannot find its source in religion (It certainly predates the Christian religion). He argues a moral sense is present in us because it has had some survival value for our species. Because having moral instincts has been helpful for the survival of individuals and our species overall, we find it ingrained into what we are as homo-sapiens. It is instinct. Our altruistic impulses that manifest themselves in say, the desire to adopt a child, are perhaps just “misfirings” of our selfish survival instincts to perpetuate our species.
But is this the best explanation of morality? Offering a potential explanation for how my internal moral compass came into existence (through evolution), does nothing to tell me whether my compass is telling me about something real, or is merely talking about arbitrary rules or illusions to help our species survive. If we are so bold to say, as Dawkins does, that our internal moral sense is nothing more than an evolved device that helps our species survive, what then, is the moral reality our senses speak of? It is nothing more than a pleasant fabrication that evolved accidentally, and not essentially, with humanity. If we were to rewind human evolution, change some causal circumstances in our history, and let it play out again, humans would almost certainly evolve a different moral sense, one that is accepting of other things, perhaps of rape, or cowardice, as being beneficial to the individual or species.
In other words, if this understanding is correct, morality is not real in any objective manner. And this is precisely what Mr. Dawkins elsewhere concluded:
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” [ii]
What is ironic about Mr Dawkins' view is that he believes what we call morality is merely developed biological processes that assist in the survival our species. But, if his view of morality is correct, he leaves us with no objective reason to believe that the survival of our species is actually a good thing. Because, as he indicated, there is no good.
There are others, some Atheists and even some Liberal Theists, who would argue that perhaps morality is not a fundamental objective reality, or a product of biological evolution, but merely a product of social evolution. Our societies have each evolved with their own understanding of what is moral and right.[iii] But this view suffers from the same weaknesses as Mr. Dawkins’. If morality is comprised of evolved social functions, and nothing more, then when societies inevitably come in to conflict about what is “right” and what is “wrong”, what is the standard by which we decide who is correct? By what standard can the Allies and Jewish persons look at the Nazi’s and confidently and unequivocally say, “You are wrong! What you did was Evil!” By what standard could all of the nations attacked by ISIS thugs point and say, “This goes deeper than my societal preference against yours. Deliberately blowing up our children and putting bullets in the heads of bystanders is Evil.” If this understanding is correct, then we have no such standard. We have only our particular social constructs to throw against the Nazis, or ISIS, or Stalin. If there is nothing more to morality than social constructs and evolved social habits, then the actions of the father who dies protecting his children could not be said to be objectively any better or more moral than the ISIS member who seeks to rape and destroy them. To put it crudely, morality becomes a matter of preference. But you and I both know inside of us that this is absurd. An unpleasant thought experiment demonstrates the weakness of this view: Had ISIS conquered the entire world, murdered everyone who defied them, and convinced everyone remaining that they are morally correct, they would be morally correct, because all societies would agree with them.
In other words, if this understanding is correct, morality at its roots is not real or objective. It is a pleasant child’s story, as real as fairies. It only exists if we say it does. The moment the strong man tells a weaker man that morality is not real, it is not real.
We can propose mechanisms, such as those surveyed here, to explain to ourselves that morality isn’t real or objective. We can muse that morality is nothing more than a product of time and evolution. We could suggest that morality is the invention of our own collective imagination; a pragmatically useful machine of our own design, to use and change with time. But this would be to follow Nietzsche “beyond Good and Evil”, and enslave ourselves to the belief, against our own gut feelings, that there is no reason to think that human beings have actual moral value. Because there isn’t actually morality. Consequently, we would be forced to recognize that human actions have exactly zero moral weight, and there is no moral standard with which to weigh them. In the end, the Universe will be extinguished. Every species on every world will be extinct. Every hero will be forgotten with every coward. Every lover with every rapist. Every loving parent alongside every child abuser. Their actions, as Dostoevsky realized, would each be morally neutral and irrelevant, because there is no ruler to measure between them, and no evolved species or society would be alive to remember them.
Yet, if we work it through to conclusion, our very lives cry out in protest against these understandings of morality. Our little compass compels us to believe that, even if we differ on applied ethics and legal particulars, or don’t have all the answers about what to do in every moral dilemma, Morality itself, is in some way very real. We see evil in the world, terrible things, and deep inside of us we cringe. We see other things, beautiful things, like the love of a mother for her children, and feel warm.
When I was sorting through various explanations for what Morality is, (or isn’t), I knew that I had personally witnessed evil. I’ve seen or learned of things that shook me. When confronting evil in the real world, something in the deepest reaches of my being would uncontrollably scream, “This is wrong! This is not the way that things should be! This is Evil.”
I know, and you know, that there is a way that things should be. And there are things that ought not be.
Not only have I seen things in the world outside me that are against the way things should be, I knew that I had personally done things that were not right. No, of course I’ve never murdered or raped anyone. Yet there have been times in my life in which I knew I should do something, and simply did not. There have been other times in which I knew that doing something would somehow be wrong, and yet I did it anyway. My compass reminded me that I knew better. Now, either evolution has done such a thorough job of programming me to believe in something that does not actually exist (Morality), to the point that I cannot actually trust myself, or, as is far more likely, you and I are on to something. Somehow, in some way, Morality is real, and your actions and mine matter.
And this is precisely what Christianity has always taught. Traditionally, Christians have believed that morality is objectively real. Morality is not arbitrary. It does not have its roots in evolution or society, in human law or convention, or even in the Law of Moses. Morality is rooted in the very nature of God. God is the Greatest Good. His moral qualities aren’t arbitrary or external to Him. Rather, they are and have always been an essential part of His nature. Human beings, in the Christian view, are created in His image, and are thus moral beings. Therefore, having moral responsibilities and some sense of Morality is simply a part of what we are as humans (whether we are Christian or Atheist or anything else). It is in the definition of Human to be moral. The Christian Scriptures inform us that, while we have all at some time acted in some way against what is morally right, we all have some sense of this moral reality. Even people who have never heard of Christianity or the moral law are still, in the Christian view, moral beings made in God’s image:
“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”[iv]
In other words, on the Christian view, Morality is real and objective. It is in our nature to have some moral sense. We as humans have binding moral responsibilities. There is “Right” and “Wrong”, “Good” and “Evil”. And this is just what our compass tries to tell us.
Allow me to say it this way:
1. My inner moral sense compels me to believe that Morality is real and objective.
2. If Atheism is true, then Morality is not real and objective.
3. Therefore, my inner moral sense compels me to believe that Atheism is not true.
1. Without the existence of God (as Christians have traditionally understood God), there is no reason to believe that Morality is real and objective.
2. My inner moral sense compels me to believe that Morality is real and objective.
3. Therefore, my inner moral sense compels me to believe that God (as Christians have traditionally understood God) exists.
Laying aside for now the enormous societal and cultural implications of the Christian view of Morality, it was always interesting to me to read or talk to many Atheists, Buddhists, and others, who on a practical level believed and lived as though Morality is, in fact, real and objective. But they never could offer an adequate explanation as to why. Some Atheists, like Sam Harris, would attempt to affirm that human life is intrinsically morally valuable, and that moral values are objective. These folks would often try to fix the roots of morality in human well-being. Of course, human well-being is important, but why? Without some further justification, there is no reason to think that human life and well-being are more valuable than the lives of leeches or the well-being of driftwood. Other Atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, spend great effort arguing for Liberty and the rights to Life and Pursuit of Happiness. I share with these men the belief that these are valuable things. But why are they valuable? The Atheist answer simply cannot be as potent, explanatorily satisfying, or convincing as the Christian one. However well-(or ill)-intentioned, the Atheist has no foundation to justify belief in real Morality.
Morality is real and objective. Our very existence asks us, compels us, to believe so. And this, I came to see, makes perfect sense if the Christian picture of Morality, Humanity and the World is true.
To Read More:
From an Atheist Perspective, read
-Beyond Good and Evil, Freidrich Nietzsche
From a Christian Perspective, read
-Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
-The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis
-A Reasonable Response, William Lane Craig
[i] Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 2006, pg 240. For his main argument on morality, see chapter 6.
[ii] Dawkins, River out of Eden (New York, Basic) 1995, pg 133
[iii] In this view, Western societies, for example, have evolved arbitrary social rules for what sexual practices are morally acceptable, and which are not. Western societies, the reasoning usually continues, have used these arbitrary ‘moral’ rules to discriminate against those individuals who don’t conform to said arbitrary expectations.
[iv] Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 2