Does God Exist? – Part 3 – An Argument from Morality

In the first article we looked at the Argument from Causality and concluded that “that only an eternal, personal God could have brought the universe into being.”  Then we looked at the Argument from Design and Purpose (Teleology) and concluded that “our universe and our world show such evidence of wonderful and intricate design that they must have been designed by the eternal, personal God indicated by the previous argument from causality.”  Now we look at the Argument from Morality.

The universality of moral obligation

All human beings have a definite sense of right and wrong, even if they disagree over whether some particular actions are right or wrong.

So it is a fact of life that human beings have a clear awareness of moral obligation. Actions such as murder, theft and rape are regarded as wrong. If there is a minority who feel no guilt about murder, theft or rape, then these people will have a sense of justice and right and wrong with respect to how they themselves are treated. Selfish though this is, it is another evidence of the universality of a sense of moral obligation, as is the fact that the rest of humanity will disapprove of this minority.

There is a “givenness” about moral obligation. It is such a dominant fact of human experience that to deny it defies credibility. Some people have denied that there is an objective world out there, putting it all down to subjective impressions. But no-one is likely to act on that theory in practice!  Similarly, some philosophers say that morality is subjective but they live their lives as if it were objective.

Even those who deny there are objective (universally binding) moral principles, still believe they must follow their own conscience and that it is wrong deliberately and knowingly to go against it. This itself is a moral absolute – a universally binding moral principle!  We feel bound to do certain things and to avoid doing others.

The cause of universal moral obligation

There seem to be four main suggested causes for this remarkable universal moral obligation:

1.    It simply emerged through natural selection 

But how can such an exalted reality as human moral obligation emerge simply from material creation?  As someone put it: “How could the primordial slime pools gurgle up the Sermon on the Mount?” Morality exists only on the level of human personality, not on the level of the inorganic or non-human. 

Some have claimed that it has developed from the drive to self preservation which is inherent to natural selection. Michael Ruse, an agnostic philosopher of science, writes: “The position of the modern evolutionist is that . . . morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory. (“Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in “The Darwinian Paradigm,” London, Routledge, 1989, pp. 262-269).  

But such a deterministic, materialistic view is very difficult to relate to the heights of human morality (such as the Sermon on the Mount) and to the widespread experience of human compassion and altruism.

Richard Dawkins recognises the result of such a genetic view of morality when he writes: “My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true… Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” (“The Selfish Gene,” Oxford University Press (1989), quoted by permission of Oxford University Press,, p3).  He does not explain why he and others have come to have such lofty aspirations.

Those who deny that there is an objective, universal moral obligation because, they say, morality emerged from material creation, should remember that the mind developed in the same way. If we trust the rationality of the human mind as universally and objectively valid, why should we not trust the equally strong, universal sense of right and wrong in the same way? 

2.    It simply emerged from human aspirations

Some claim that morality emerged merely from human desires, for example a desire to develop one’s nature. But this raises important issues:

a. How can the observed universal moral obligation emerge merely from individual human desires?

b. How can I obligate myself in such an absolute way when it is simply based on my desires, and I could decide to change those desires?

c. What if I don’t want to develop my nature?

d. What if I deem it my nature to dominate others or even to be violent?

e. What if I wish to fulfil desires to murder, rape and steal?

f. If I love only in order to satisfy my desire to love and to be loved, is not such selfishness morally repugnant?

3.    It simply emerged from the needs of human society

Some claim that morality emerged merely from the needs of society to preserve its own welfare.  But this too raises important issues:

a. How can society create a universal, binding moral obligation, because if it encourages me to do what I know is wrong I feel obliged to disobey? (In other words, morality is higher than following the crowd).

b. What right does society have to impose morality on me? It may be argued that this is essential to the welfare of society. But, on the basis of an evolutionary survival of the fittest, why should I not simply do my own thing, rather than being protective towards a vulnerable society? Professor R. Z. Friedman, a philosopher of the University of Toronto said: “Without religion the coherence of an ethic of compassion cannot be established. The principle of respect for persons and the principle of the survival of the fittest are mutually exclusive.”

c. How can society create a universal morality when different societies have different moralities, e.g. Nazi Germany or the ancient Hindu practice of burning widows alive?

d. If morality is simply a set of cultural rules then how can society say that the person who flouts those rules is morally wrong as opposed to simply being counter-culture?

e. Is it not the case, then, that to say morality simple emerged from the needs of human society makes morality relative, i.e. dependant on the different needs and outlooks of different societies?

f. If morality is regarded as subjective (rather than as a universal, binding obligation) because it emerged from human development and society, why should reason and scientific method, which developed in the same way, not be regarded as subjective too?

4.    It was given by God

The universal and very dominant sense of right and wrong really cannot be explained merely from natural selection, human aspirations and the needs of human society. It requires a greater, more objective cause.  Logically, this cause cannot be impersonal or amoral, and, as we have seen, it cannot be merely the human individual or society. This brings us inevitably to a supernatural cause, in fact to a personal, moral God. And since the highest human moral quality is selfless love, God must be selflessly loving.

It is not enough to say that morality is based on God’s commands, as this could seem arbitrary. Morality is based on God’s character. Christians believe God is love and this is the basis for morality – loving God and loving your neighbour.

The late Professor J.L. Mackie of Oxford University, an atheist, admitted: “If … there … are objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus, we have … a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god.”   But in order to avoid God’s existence, Mackie therefore denied that objective moral values exist. 

Richard Taylor, a non-Christian philosopher, writes: “The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough . . . . Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, and referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawmaker higher . . . than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can . . . be understood as those that are imposed by God. This does give a clear sense to the claim that our moral obligations are more binding upon us than our political obligations . . . . But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of a moral obligation . . . still make sense? . . . the concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.. . . The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well (“Ethics, Faith and Reason”, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1985, pp. 83-84, 2- 3).

One problem of the atheist position is that it logically undermines the accepted value of human beings. If there is no God, in whose image humanity is created, and who upholds human dignity, why should human suffering still be evil? Animals are killed for food etc., and this is not a moral issue. If human beings are merely developed animals, why should killing them be a moral issue? As Dostoyevsky said: “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” 

I conclude that the strong, universal sense of morality in human beings is clearly objective and is inadequately explained by natural selection, human aspirations and the needs of human society. The only adequate explanation of this moral order, which is necessary to human welfare, is that it is of divine origin, i.e. that there is a personal, moral, loving God, to whom we are ultimately accountable.  Part of this human moral awareness is the challenge to live in a truly moral way. There is even a concept of perfection. However, it is also clear that human beings are failing. Hence awareness of the challenge to live in a truly moral way, even to reach perfection, suggests there is perfect God behind the moral order. 

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction