Last time we looked at the differences between moral epistemology and ontology.  We also looked at some definitions that needed clarification before we could examine  the existence of  objective morals.  Today we will examine the foundation for objective moral values and duties as well as the fallacy of the naturalistic explanation for  objective moral values and duties.

If you haven’t read Part I click here

Foundation for Objective Morality

Looking at the arguments presented at the beginning, it becomes clear that if God is not the basis for objective morals and duties, we have to come up with another hypothesis. In Dr. Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, he tries to argue that objective morals and duties come from what is good for our species and doesn’t cause harm. If this were the case, for us to claim our values to be objectively true and binding would make us guilty of speciesism – a sort of bias in favor of your own species. Why aren’t our objective morals and duties based upon what is best for cats or dogs? It appears that there is a lack or absence of a foundation for moral objectivity on the naturalistic view.

But what of things which were once accepted as moral and are now no longer (e.g., slavery)? Doesn’t this moral change show that morals are subject to sociological manipulation? A corollary can be found in science. When science discovers something, it doesn’t change. We don’t speak of scientific change; we speak of scientific discovery or advancement. Similarly, we shouldn’t speak of moral change, but of moral discovery or moral progress. Just because we don’t do things now that were once morally acceptable, doesn’t mean they weren’t morally unacceptable all along. They were always objectively wrong, but we had to discover it.

If we reject objective morals based on how we discover them, we are committing genetic fallacy. Genetic fallacy is when one throws away a truth because of how it was discovered. If I decide that someone is standing outside my front door because I rolled some dice, and it turns out that someone is in fact standing outside my front door, I don’t reject the truth that someone is really out there because of how I came to know it – it is true independent of how I came to know it. Once again the argument has to do with moral epistemology. (Dr. William Lane Craig. April 17, 2010. DebateGod audio podcast. 1:00)

Let’s go back to point number one of the moral argument – if God exists, then we have a firm foundation for objective moral values and duties. This point has two sub-points that require examination:

1. Theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral values. Moral values have to do with what is good or evil. On the theistic view, objective moral values are grounded in God. As Saint Anselm said, “Deus est qua maius cogitari non potest,” or, “God is that, more than which cannot be conceived.” God is therefore the highest good. He is not merely perfectly good; he is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is, by nature, loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus, if God exists, objective moral values exist wholly independent of human beings. In The Book of Mormon we read, “God’s mercy cannot rob His justice” (Alma 42:25). When we read this scripture, in the context of God’s essential nature, this scripture has new meaning. Can mercy not rob justice because they are both essential and necessary to God’s being? Or can mercy not rob justice because the two concepts exist outside of God and are independent of God as they are with human beings? I would argue the former; mercy and justice are necessary attributes of God and do not exist outside of Him. And it is through Christ’s atonement that these two essential natures of God can be maintained.
2. Theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral duties. On a theistic view, objective moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments. These constitute our moral obligations or duties. Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with His holy and loving nature. Our duties then are constituted by God’s commandments and these in turn reflect His essential character. The goal of theism is not to avoid hell. A Christian doesn’t believe in God to avoid hell. One believes that God, as the supreme good, is a being who is worthy and deserving of worship, love, and adoration. God is the definition of goodness and is to be desired for the sake of goodness. So the fulfillment of human existence is to be found in its relation to God. It is because of who God is and His moral worth that He is worthy of worship. It has nothing to do with avoiding hell or promoting your own well-being. Any being that is not worthy of worship is not God; therefore, God must be perfect and good. He is the paradigm of good. The atheist might ask why God is the definition of good. Goodness is essential to His nature. The question is nonsensical; it is like asking why all bachelors are unmarried. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments. First, you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, soul, heart, and mind. Second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. With this foundation we can affirm the objective rightness of love, generosity, equality, and self-sacrifice, and we can condemn selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression as objectively wrong. In summary, theism has the sound foundation for objective morality. It grounds objective moral duties and values. It is evident that if God exists, we have a firm foundation for objective moral values and duties.

The Fallacy of the Naturalistic Explanation for Objective Morality

Now let’s refer back to the second point of the moral argument – if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. Consider the idea of objective moral values. If God does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values? In particular, why would human beings have objective moral worth at all? On the atheistic view, humans are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism, it is hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good any more than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being is objectively good. This is what the atheist, Dr. Sam Harris, calls the value problem. The purpose of Dr. Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, is to explain the existence of objective moral values based on an atheistic view. He explicitly rejects the view that moral values are platonic objects, existing independent of the world. So, Dr. Harris’ only recourse is to try to ground moral values in the natural world. But how can you do that when nature is in and of itself just morally neutral?

From a naturalistic view, moral values are just the behavioral byproducts of biological evolution and social conditioning. Just as a troop of baboons exhibits cooperative and even self-sacrificial behavior because natural selection has determined that to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins, Homo sapiens, have evolved a sort of “herd morality” for precisely the same reason. As a result of socio-biological pressures, there has evolved among Homo sapiens a “herd morality” which functions well in the perpetuation of our species. But with this naturalistic/atheistic view, there isn’t anything that makes this type of morality objectively binding and true. For us to think that human beings are special and our morality is objectively true is to succumb to the temptation of speciesism (unjustified bias in favor of one’s own species). The philosopher of science Michael Ruse reports:

“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness is a biological work. Morality is a biological adaptation; no less than our hands, 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 neighbor as thyself’, they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Never the less, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival, reproduction, and any deeper meaning is illusory.”

So, are objective moral values and duties just spin-offs of social/biological evolution? If we were to re-run the film of evolution backwards and then start it anew, would a different sort of creature emerge in the evolutionary process with a quite different set of values? In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “If men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers. And mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters. And no one would think of interfering.” If we remove God, then any reason for regarding the “herd morality” evolved by Homo sapiens as objectively true is unjustifiable. Take God out of the picture and all you seem to be left with is an ape-like creature on a speck of dust, beset with delusions of moral grandeur.

Based on Sam Harris’ assessment of objective morality, human worth is no greater than that of a chimpanzee or a pig. This view is depressing. Dr. Harris’ atheistic position is flawed when he says, “There is at bottom no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. We are machines for propagating DNA. It is every living object’s sole reason for being.” So how does one like Sam Harris propose to solve this human worth problem? He proposes to simply redefine what is meant by good and evil in non-moral terms. He says, “We should define good as that which supports the well-being of conscious creatures. So, questions about values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” We can imagine creatures being in the worst possible misery and it is obviously better for creatures to be flourishing. Yes, the well-being of conscious creatures is good. That, however, is not the question. The question is, “If atheism were true, what would make the flourishing of conscious creatures objectively good?”

While it may be good for conscious creatures to flourish, there is no reason on the atheistic perspective to think that flourishing would really be objectively good. After all, isn’t pain and misery subjective? The question should then follow, “Is the wrongness of an action a subjective fact?” On atheism, it is hard to see how it couldn’t be anything more than a subjective fact. In which case, the atheist cannot say that things such as the genital mutilation of little girls are objectively wrong; it becomes a subjective opinion. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask whether maximizing well-being is good. Why? Because Dr. Harris has redefined the word “good” to mean maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures. So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is, on Dr. Harris’ definition, the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures well-being?” It is a tautology (using different words to mean the same thing). One is talking in circles.

So Dr. Harris has purportedly “solved the human worth problem” just by redefining its terms. This is nothing but word play. At the end of the day, moral values aren’t really being talked about at all; Dr. Harris is just talking about what is conducive to the flourishing of sentient life (the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences) on this planet. Seen in this light, his claim that science can tell us a great deal about what contributes to human flourishing is hardly controversial. Of course science can tell us many things, just like science can tell us what is conducive to the flourishing of corn or mosquitoes or bacteria. The so-called “moral landscape”, which features the highs and lows of human flourishing, isn’t really a moral landscape at all. Thus, there is a failure to solve the human worth problem. There is no justification or explanation for why, on atheism, moral values would objectively exist at all. The so-called “solution” is just a semantic trick of an arbitrary and idiosyncratic redefinition of good and evil in non-moral vocabulary. The atheist is equivocating on the definition of the word “good”.

Here are some examples of non-moral uses of the word “good”. There are good and bad moves in chess. The use here clearly is not a moral use of the terms good and bad. It just means that they are not apt to produce a winning strategy; what is done is not a moral issue. Saying BYU has a good team has nothing to do with the morality of the team, but has to do with their win/loss record. The atheist use of the word “good” is not an ethical contrast between a morally good life and an evil life; it is a contrast between a pleasurable life and a miserable life. There is no reason to identify pleasure and misery with good and evil, especially on atheism. So there is no reason, on atheism, to think that there exists objective moral good.

If a rapist, liar, or thief could be just as happy as a good person, then the atheist’s moral landscape would no longer be a moral landscape. Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and evil people alike. What is interesting about this is that there are, according to Dr. Harris, about 3 million psychopathic Americans. That is to say, they don’t care about the well-being of others. They enjoy inflicting pain on others. This implies there is a possible world in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape. If the peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people, then that would entail, in the actual world, that the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape could not be identical. This leads to the conclusion that the identity or definition of well-being and the moral landscape are different and you cannot, by the nature of their identities, say they are the same because identity is a necessary relation. Let’s explore this relation as a philosophical proposition:

There is no possible world in which entity “A” is not identical to “A”. So if there is any possible world in which “A” is not identical to “B”, it follows that “A” is not in fact identical to “B”. Since it is possible that human well-being (entity “A”) and moral goodness (entity “B”) are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same as the atheist has asserted. By granting it is possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, the atheist’s argument is logically incoherent. This goes to show that on atheism, there is no reason to identify the well-being of conscious creatures with moral goodness. Atheism cannot explain the reality, the objective reality, of moral values.

In the next post we will compare moral ontology and  semantics as well as briefly look at whether evil actually exists.

Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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