Catch up on this series’ previous installments: Part I: “Christianity’s Human Sacrifice Problem,” Part II: “Is Religion Illogical?” Part III: “Would Christians Object to Living Indefinitely Through Technology?,” Part IV: “Is Religion Compatible with Life on Earth?,” Part V: “Atheists Can Be Moral, Too“
What is morality anyway? You might think it goes without saying. But different people don’t always mean the same thing when they claim an act is moral or immoral.
For believers, morality tends to boil down to obeying God’s commandments. When we say this is moral and that is not, we mean it conforms with or diverges from biblical prescriptions.
With that as our view of morality, it becomes easy to see why we might claim that there can be no morality without God. We’ve set God’s commandments as our standard of value. But what if, by doing so, we’ve placed the proverbial cart before the horse? Are God’s commandants good because he said so? Or does God issue commandments because they are good?
Before we can rationally tackle such questions, we need to define our terms. In his book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It, author Craig Biddle leads us on a path toward discovering a morality induced from the facts we perceive in creation:
To begin, note that the basic fact that makes morality such a difficult subject is the very fact that makes it a subject in the first place: free will. As human beings we have the faculty of volition, the power of choice; we choose our actions. This fact gives rise to our need of morality. Indeed, the realm of morality is the realm of choice. What makes the issue complicated is the fact that our choices are guided by our values – which are also chosen. This is why it is so difficult to get to the bottom of morality. Human values are chosen – every last one of them. Consequently, peoples’ values seem to differ in every imaginable way.
Nearly all of our chosen values are subjective. I like basketball. You like football. Which of us is right?
We tend to recognize that there is no “right” choice between such values. We may be tempted to extrapolate that there are no “right” choices at all, that all values are subjective. That’s the argument of moral relativism.
One such relativist was the philosopher David Hume, who presented an alleged unbridgeable gap between that which is and how we ought to act. This “is-ought gap” suggests that there is no way to leap from the facts of reality to a code of conduct, that there is no objective standard of value.
It turns out that Hume was wrong. There is an objective standard of value. Proving it requires no reference to God or religion. The is-ought gap was bridged in the last century by the discoveries of philosopher Ayn Rand. She wrote in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics”:
There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence – and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible. it changes form, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of “Life” that makes the concept of “Value” possible.
Biddle adds in his commentary:
The reason why living things need values is: in order to live. The answer to the question “for what?”is: for life.
Life is the ultimate end served by our pursuit of values, and thus reigns as our objective standard of value. Something has value to us only to the extent that it furthers or enhances our life.
But what do we mean by “objective”? Isn’t the idea that life is the standard of value just Rand’s opinion? Can’t you choose another standard based on your subjective tastes? Biddle answers:
No, free will do not make the issue subjective. It does mean that a person can choose not to live; but it does not mean that he can choose a standard of value other than life.
… Without life there would be no one to whom anything could be beneficial or harmful. And why do such alternatives matter one way or the other? Because of the requirements of life. They are values or non-values only in relation to the alternative of life or death – and only for the purpose of promoting one’s life. The fact that we have free will does not change any of this; it simply grants us a choice in the matter: to live or not to live – to be or not to be.
Having discovered this objective standard of value, we have our reference point for further unveiling an objective morality. From the fact of our own existence as living beings with a particular nature, we can rationally ascertain what we ought to do.
Generally speaking, we ought to work to provide for our needs. We ought to act to obtain or keep that which furthers our survival and makes us happy.
This happiness, the sort referenced by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, is not a hedonistic whim. It’s not chocolate for a diabetic. It’s not an affair for a married man. Rather, true happiness is gauged in the context of how life works and what we can reasonably expect to follow from our actions. The diabetic who eats lots of chocolate may gain short-term pleasure, but at the expense of his long-term well-being. The same can be said of the adulterer.
Odd how this objective morality, discovered by an unrepentant atheist, starts to dimly echo the Ten Commandments. Indeed, if God exists, and if He created the universe, it follows that his moral commandments would jive with the facts of his crafted reality – that He would prescribe action in our best interest.
While Biddle, Rand, and other Objectivist thinkers reject religion on principle, believers need not reject the morality they present. On the contrary, recognizing objective morality glorifies God. Romans 1:19-20 reads:
… that which is known about God is evident within [man]; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
Paul here says, in essence, that we can induce from the world – from what is – what we ought to do.
If we entertain objective morality as believers, we are presented with a challenge to some of our doctrine. In particular, we must figure out what to do with our human sacrifice problem. If life is the standard of value, which it’s fair to say we have firmly established, then how can sacrificing life ever be moral?
Biddle sets the context for deliberation:
Since each person is objectively a separate being with his own body, his own mind, his own life – since life is an attribute of the individual – each person’s own life is his own ultimate value. Each individual is morally an end in himself – not a means to the ends of others. Accordingly, a person has neither a moral duty to sacrifice himself for the sake of others (as religion and social subjectivism claim) nor a moral right to sacrifice others for his own sake (as personal subjectivism [or hedonism] claims). On principle, neither self-sacrifice nor sacrifice of others is moral, because, on principle, human sacrifice as such is immoral.
What then must we do with the Christian reverence for sacrifice? What do we do with Abraham’s offering of Issac? With Christ’s work on the cross? How do we categorize things like military service or working as a firefighter? How do we regard charity, parenthood, marriage, and a hundred other human interactions which are typically associated with sacrifice in a positive connotation?
That’s our subject for next week.