Whose Morality Is It Anyway?
Can there be right and wrong without God?
January 15, 2013 - 7:00 am
A pastor visiting our church shared a story from when his children were young. The oldest was four years old, and the younger three, when their mother served them grapes on the vine. As they plucked the sweet fruit, the younger child asked of the older, “How does Mommy get the grapes on there?”
Summoning elder gravitas, the firstborn replied, “Mommy doesn’t put the grapes on there.
“The store does.”
Children have a wonderful way of modeling our deficiencies. While it is easy to laugh at the reasoning of a child, we ought to consider how silly our reasoning might prove if the whole truth were known. Indeed, if we cannot point to an idea or two which we have reconsidered in light of new evidence, it cannot be said we have grown.
One idea which I used to hold, which made perfect sense to me at the time and still makes perfect sense to most of my Christian brethren, is the notion that man cannot rationally demonstrate an absolute morality in a world without God. My reasoning echoed that of Jeff Jacoby in a 2010 piece for Townhall. He wrote:
For in a world without God, there is no obvious difference between good and evil. There is no way to prove that murder is wrong if there is no Creator who decrees “Thou shalt not murder.’’ It certainly cannot be proved wrong by reason alone. One might reason instead — as Lenin and Stalin and Mao reasoned — that there is nothing wrong with murdering human beings by the millions if doing so advances the Marxist cause. Or one might reason from observing nature that the way of the world is for the strong to devour the weak — or that natural selection favors the survival of the fittest by any means necessary, including the killing of the less fit.
Reason is not enough. Only if there is a God who forbids murder is murder definitively evil. Otherwise its wrongfulness is a matter of opinion. Mao and Seneca approved of murder; we disapprove. What makes us think we’re right?
This perspective contrasts with that typically offered by atheists and agnostics, who assert that right and wrong can be discerned without reference to the supernatural. As a Christian, it is tempting to respond to such skeptics as PJ Lifestyle contributor John Hawkins did while affirming Jacoby.
Writing for his Right Wing News site, Hawkins claims “Without God, All Morality Is Subjective“:
Put another way, if I steal $20 out of your wallet to spend on concert tickets, I’m a hypocrite. That’s because I know, you know, and Christians almost everywhere are going to agree that stealing that $20 out of your wallet is an immoral act.
Now, is an atheist/agnostic violating her moral code if she steals $20 out of someone’s wallet? Maybe, maybe not. It’s entirely possible that she could reason that there’s nothing wrong with stealing $20 from someone if she doesn’t get caught. But, what if you’re an atheist/agnostic who disagrees with that reasoning? Well honestly, if there’s no God, humans are just sophisticated animals and it’s ultimately no more right or wrong for you to steal that $20 than it is for a chimp to grab another chimp’s banana while he’s flinging poo.
As proofs of God’s existence go, this notion that morality could not otherwise exist is incomplete. Like the solution to a math problem given without showing work, it teaches nothing.
True, morality could not exist without God. Nothing could, which remains the only proof of his existence that anyone needs. However, if a skeptic is not compelled by the necessity for a Cause of Cause, they aren’t likely to be compelled by a derivative of the same argument.
Of course, the Great Commission of the Christian is not to compel skeptics with crafty arguments. Rather, our mission is to present biblical truth and leave the skeptic’s response to God. Yet, even here we fail if we utilize the commonly offered proof from morality, because it is neither wholly true nor biblical.
It turns out that morality can be discerned through reason. As much was discovered in the twentieth century by Ayn Rand, whose philosophical system of objectivism claims a morality which is “absolute, objective, and secular.” Entire books have been written explaining her reasoning, and they must be read in order to fully understand it. For the sake of this discussion, here is objective morality in a nutshell.
It begins by considering the Socratic questions offered by Christian apologist Michael Horner. He asks rhetorically:
How do you get ethics from only different arrangements of space, time, matter and energy?
A purely materialistic universe would be morally indifferent. Humans, like everything else in the universe, would be just accidental arrangements of atoms, and therefore, we could not justifiably declare that humans are objectively valuable. And why think the morality of the human species, above all other species, is objectively binding rather than just our opinion?
Value stands out as the central concept here. Rand asked “of value to whom, and for what.” Her point was to define value as that which living things act to obtain and keep. All manner of values permeate our lives, from the mundane to the profound. Life sits atop a pedestal, valued above all. Only living things, those capable of self-generated self-sustaining action, can pursue value. Furthermore, that particular breed of creature which conceives of and pursues value though a process of thought – human beings – needs a code of behavior to determine which actions are life-affirming (good) and which are destructive (bad).
Given that life is the basis of value, and action informed by rational thought is the only means for humans to obtain and keep their values, it follows that liberty is the condition in which men must live. Such objective liberty is not licentiousness, but merely the ability to act upon one’s judgment in pursuit of happiness without coercion from others, a condition made possible only by mutual respect of boundaries.
That is how you get ethics from “only different arrangements of space, time, matter, and energy.” The material universe proves anything but “morally indifferent.” If morality is the code by which we arrive at choices, the material universe harshly rebukes those who choose to act against its nature.
Heading off charges of heresy from my Christian brethren, let us turn to scripture for some confirmation. The apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:18:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
In the study bible which bears his name, John MacArthur writes of the Greek word translated “is revealed”:
More accurately, “is constantly revealed.” The word essentially means “to uncover, make visible, or make known.” God reveals his wrath in two ways: 1) indirectly, through the natural consequences of violating his universal moral law, and 2) directly through his personal intervention…
In other words, even absent supernatural intervention, the created order punishes bad behavior. Rand put it another way:
You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.
Paul continues in Romans 1:19-20:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Creation is God’s first testament, sufficient to hold men accountable to the moral law. As an atheist, it was surely not Rand’s intention to echo the apostle Paul. Nevertheless, both speak to the same essential truth, that the nature of reality presents evidence of a moral order. While irreconcilable differences persist between objectivism and the Christian worldview, rational thought should not be sold short by believers. After all, the ability to think is bestowed from on high.
Acknowledging conversion as the work of God, Christians nonetheless want to avoid placing stumbling blocks in front of skeptical seekers. The commonly offered proof from morality can stumble, because it does not present the whole truth. Acknowledging that absolute standards of right and wrong can be discerned through reason in no way detracts from the glory of God. On the contrary, we should expect creation to testify to the will of its creator.
Why is murder wrong? It deprives an individual of his right to life. How do we know such a right exists? It is derived from the concept of value, the recognition of life as the ultimate value, and the observation that individuals are an objective moral end onto themselves rather than a means to the ends of others. Craig Biddle, editor of The Objective Standard, fleshes out the argument.
Of course, Biddle and his fellow objectivists would cringe at the intermingling of Rand’s theory of rights with the theistic claims of Christianity. Such objections are a topic for another day. Meanwhile, Christians should have no problem reconciling objective morality with their faith in God. The revelation of scripture builds upon what is objectively true. While objectivists reject revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge, Christians ought not reject or marginalize reason. After all, scripture doesn’t (Isaiah 1:18; Acts 17:2,17; 18:4,9; 19:8-9; James 3:17).
It is through reason that we confirm our Christian faith. The fact that absolute morality has been objectively demonstrated bolsters the believer’s claim. As Isaiah spoke of “the circle of the earth” thousands of years before it was objectively proved to be round, so scripture spoke of absolute morality thousands of years before Ayn Rand objectively discerned it. Such discoveries take nothing away from God. On the contrary, they prove Him true.
Previously from Walter Hudson at PJ Lifestyle:
Related at PJ Lifestyle from John Hawkins: