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Why believe in objective morals?

Published: 16 September 2017 (GMT+10)

How can we believe in objective morals if people disagree on moral questions? Jackson C. from the United States writes:

Is the Moral Argument a poor argument for theism? The only evidence of a moral law existing would be our sense of it. What if our conscience conflicts with the Bible? My conscience tells me that it would be evil to kill my dog, but the Bible says it wouldn’t be. Not everyone has the same moral feelings. Does this significantly weaken the Moral Argument?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Since we’ve defended the moral argument for God quite extensively on our website, we clearly don’t think it’s a poor argument for God. However, that doesn’t mean it will convince everyone. No argument for God (or against God) will do that. For more information, please see Philosophical arguments for God and Agnosticism.

But do conflicting moral intuitions undermine our warrant for believing in objective morals? The example you give is: ‘is it permissible to kill my pet?’ You even raise what you see as a conflict between your moral feelings and what the Bible says: “My conscience tells me that it would be evil to kill my dog, but the Bible says it wouldn’t be.”

First, the Bible doesn’t say that you can kill your dog for just any reason. “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast” (Proverbs 12:10). While we have authority over animals (Genesis 1:28), and in a fallen world that authority has been extended to authority over their lives to a certain extent (e.g. for food, or in sacrifice), we still need a good reason to kill our animals, according to the Bible. And while the Bible certainly gives us principles to help discern the matter, and in some cases, we do need to kill our animals (e.g. if they become a danger to human life), it will in many cases come down to a question of personal conscience. And on that count, the Bible says that violating personal conscience is bad: “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). But that doesn’t mean you should expect everyone to agree with you, and because the Bible’s advice is so generic, there’s plenty of room for reasonable disagreement among Christians. So, while the Bible doesn’t mandate your views, it doesn’t condemn them either. See What about animal rights? for more details.

Second, if the mere existence of conflicting moral feelings undermines our warrant for believing in objective morals based on our moral experience, that seems to imply we can only have reasonable warrant for accepting objective morality if everyone agrees on every moral question. But disagreements could arise for many different reasons. Perhaps we’re limited. Perhaps some of these questions are difficult. Perhaps some of us have bought into falsehoods that distort our moral views. Perhaps we’re sinners with moral compasses that are somewhat distorted naturally (Can people be good without God?). All these reasons plausibly explain why disagreements might exist, despite the reality of objective morals and us having a generally reliable grasp of basic moral questions.

Besides, universal agreement doesn’t mean much. For instance, say that the Nazis killed or brainwashed everyone who thought the Holocaust was evil. Would that have made the Holocaust good? Would it mean that there’s no truth to the matter? Neither. The Holocaust is evil, regardless of what anyone thinks.

Moreover, the question ‘is it permissible to kill my pet?’ is not the best question to gauge the reality of objective morals by. The reality of objective morals doesn’t mean that all moral questions are easy to answer. Rather, we use clear-cut examples like ‘it’s wrong to torture a baby just for fun’ to show that, despite the difficulty of many moral questions, there are some situations where merely a moment’s reflection will make it clear to most that we can’t escape the reality of morality. Indeed, the ‘is it right to torture X just for fun’ is a really handy one, because we can substitute ‘babies’ for whatever the person we’re dealing with really loves, like ‘your mum’, or ‘your dog’, or ‘your son’, or whatever. Making it personal heightens the person’s disgust at the idea, and usually forces people to admit that they can’t escape the reality of morality.

Transfer this sort of thinking to another subject. For instance, Muslims and Christians typically disagree on whether Jesus died by crucifixion. Does this disagreement undermine our ability to know any historical truth? Does it call into question the very notion of historical truth? Surely not! Even if we couldn’t know who was right in this instance (e.g. for lack of evidence), it still wouldn’t undermine our ability to know any historical truth. And it certainly wouldn’t be reason to think that there’s no historical truth to be known. But that’s exactly parallel to what you’re suggesting regarding morals: just because our moral experience might fail us in some instances does not mean that it’s untrustworthy in all other cases.

You will always find diehard moral skeptics. They will reject objective morality, no matter how much you try to convince them otherwise. But that doesn’t make you wrong, and it’s not cause for you to doubt. Rather, it just makes them crazy, or it means they have an atheistic axe to grind (the latter is usually more likely).

And press them for reasons why they reject objective morals! What justification for their views do they have? We’ve seen that the mere existence of conflicting moral feelings doesn’t work. What about evolution? Evolution is irrelevant. First, evolutionary accounts of the origin of our moral beliefs are little more than a pack of conflicting just-so stories. Second, even if it could explain the origin of our moral beliefs, that doesn’t mean they’re not objective. To say otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. For instance, even if evolution were true, God could’ve planned the process to produce in us generally reliable moral faculties. (Though, of course, God did not use evolution, and the Bible contradicts such an idea. See Christian philosopher sees no conflict with evolution: What he gets right and what he gets wrong for more information.) Evolution by itself doesn’t undermine our moral faculties. It’s only when evolution is combined with naturalism that it does that. But then naturalism, which is atheistic, becomes the only operative reason for rejecting objective morality. In other words, the only reason for rejecting objective morality turns out to be a rejection of God. But that just assumes what the skeptic needs to prove. See Answering a moral relativist and Cultural Relativism and Morality.

The skeptic really doesn’t have much hope in justifying a rejection of objective morals. Which is why you should press them to try. And remind them that if they buckle under the pressure, they have to deal with their prior acceptance of the other premise of the moral argument (i.e. ‘If God doesn’t exist, objective morals don’t exist’, on which please see Can atheism possibly explain morality and reason?). The diehard skeptic will likely just hop between denying each premise, ultimately doing so only because they can’t accept the conclusion of the argument. As frustrating as that might seem, it’s actually a really good position to leave them in. It’s hard to live with contradiction once it’s been pointed out to us, and it may be the catalyst God will use to move them closer to Himself.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

murk P.
Lots of good stuff to think about here Jackson. In fact stuff no one can discount without going crazy as the article states.

It is impossible for us people to hold as true that morality is person relative.
For stating this requires one to hold as true that a law of morality exists that is beyond people.
This law would obviously be that it is wrong for a person to hold as true that morality is not person relative.
God made it so plain - He is awesome
Jordan C.
Shaun, this article is amazing! You guys are top notch! Your response to Richard F was priceless! Thanks and God bless!
A. G.
I'm an atheist evolutionist, not because, and I would like to point out that, I don't 'believe' in evolution because I've been brainwashed into that way of thinking, but because whilst being presented with the facts, through making my own observations of animals (as Darwin did), and thinking about it extensively, it makes the most sense to me. I'm not sure if many of you are actually aware of what evolution via natural selection is, as from what I've seen you have a very warped idea of what it is. Quite frankly, you may say that evolution is merely but a 'theory'(A theory-to point out is a scientific claim backed up withe extensive evidence), but all things considered, your belief in a god, is merely a hypothesis.
I'd appreciate constructive answers(if you have any).
Shaun Doyle
I don’t think people who accept evolution, or even atheistic evolution, are all brainwashed. Nonetheless, judging by what you’ve written concerning our views, you don’t seem to have read or interpreted us as carefully as you claim to have done for the ‘facts’. On natural selection, please see our Natural Selection Q and A page, which has dozens of articles on it. I especially recommend our article Defining terms: Evolutionist Dr John Endler’s refreshing clarity about ‘natural selection’ has been largely ignored. Not only is the article about an evolutionist expert on natural selection showing why natural selection is not sufficient to explain how microbes-to-man evolution happened, but the article was written by PhD biologist Dr David Catchpoole.

Second, the fact that you think we say “evolution is merely but a theory” shows that you haven’t done even a basic investigation of our website. If you had, you would’ve known that we advise people against saying that ‘evolution is just a theory’. See our Bad arguments page under “Evolution is just a theory”.

But then you claim that “your belief in a god, is merely a hypothesis”. Honestly, if we want to compare the evidential warrant of ‘evolution’ (as a claim about the origin and history of life) and ‘God’ as ‘hypotheses’, I think evolution loses, hands down. The God “hypothesis” explains a wide array of otherwise independent factors and phenomena, simply, elegantly, plausibly, and singly (i.e. like no other “hypothesis” can). (See Does God exist? and Philosophical arguments for God). Indeed, I don’t even think the reason we use to evaluate hypotheses would exist unless the biblical God existed (see Monkey minds, Naturalism in the light of reality, and Why does science work at all?). Even if evolution can explain a wide array of phenomena, its simplicity is suspicious, it elegance is enigmatic, its plausibility is poor, and its singleness is silly (i.e. common design can do the job at least as well). A brief summary case against evolution can be found here: The scientific case against evolution. However, to explore it properly, I recommend looking at our Biology Q and A pages, and our resources By Design, The Greatest Hoax on Earth?, Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels, and Genetic Entropy.

But what about your atheism? You made some meagre pretence of defending evolution, but said nothing in defense of your atheism. Are you an atheist merely because you’re an evolutionist? If so, consider my argument for objective morals, which shows why we have good reason to believe in them regardless of evolution, but that atheistic evolution forces us to deny them. And when a position forces us to deny that torturing babies just for fun is objectively wrong, don’t you think there’s a good chance that there’s something wrong with that position?
Johan S.
Excellent article, and an excellent argument.

It reminds me of Paul's words in Romans 2 (GNB):
Rom 2:14  The Gentiles do not have the Law; but whenever they do by instinct what the Law commands, they are their own law, even though they do not have the Law. 
Rom 2:15  Their conduct shows that what the Law commands is written in their hearts. Their consciences also show that this is true, since their thoughts sometimes accuse them and sometimes defend them. 

robert R.
For instance, Muslims and Christians typically disagree on whether Jesus died by crucifixion. Does this disagreement undermine our ability to know any historical truth?

Looking for historical truths also means that you should believe the more credible source.

So on whether Jesus was crucified, there were witnesses at the time.
Compared to Mohammad who lived 600 years later, who got his info from a thing called 'Jibril'. He taught that the Christian trinity was Mary, Jesus and God. He also taught that Jesus' father Joseph was the brother of Aaron in the old testament.
For morals the source should also be tested, such that in islam sex with a goat is not a sin because sin can only be lust between humans. To build on that foundation an imam issued a fatwa that after you have sex with a goat, you cannot sell it in your village, but it is moral to sell it for milk and food in the next village.
Mitch C.
One thing to keep in mind is that, we all seem to agree that the categories of "good" and "evil" are real, even if we cannot agree as to which category a particular behavior belongs.

Moral sensibility exists. That is the point. Atheistic Evolutionists sometimes claim that it is morally wrong to teach Creation to children, and they seem to mean this as an absolute moral truth. What does "morally wrong" mean in an Atheistic worldview? Who decides what is morally wrong in the absolute sense if God does not exist?

Why even talk about "right" and "wrong" or "good" and "evil" if there is no absolute standard against which to distinguish good from evil? Is morality just an illusion? Atheists do not seem to think so.

That is the point--Atheists unwittingly borrow the concept of "absolute morality" from the Christian worldview when they make absolute moral pronouncements. Absolute morality makes no sense whatever apart from a sovereign God to whom we are all responsible.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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.
Romans 1:18-20

Richard F.
It is the frst time I have seen these two linked "violating personal conscience is bad" [because] “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). I don't believe consensus or context would agree that faith equates with conscience.

I have said this before - that I wish CMI would just stick to its core and stunningly effective mission of providing creationist science. Much of the moral or theological views here may, or may not, be right, but any enquiring non-Christian referred to your site might find your particular view of these things something he does not wish to subscribe to, and may stop him proceeding further.

Many non-Christians have sincere problems with stoning adulterers or what they see as OT genocide. Your site, and to be honest, your staffing is not equipped to deal with this. Why not just provide links to various suitable publications elsewhere
Shaun Doyle
There are many NT scholars who would agree that following personal conscience (or personal conviction) is central to what Paul is saying in Romans 14:23. Ben Witherington makes the case that it applies to issues of personal conscience:

In v. 23, Paul turns around and speaks to the "weak," indicating that they should not eat or drink anything they cannot do in good faith, because, though such eating or drinking may not be a sin in itself, it will be a sin for the weak because they thus violate their consciences and so are unable to offer the act up as an act of thanksgiving to God. [Witherington, B., Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 341, 2004.]

And Thomas Schreiner makes the case that the specific maxim "everything that is not of faith is sin" is a general moral principle:

How universal is this maxim concluding this verse? Many scholars contend that the aphorism must be restricted to the matter at hand, eating foods that are thought to be tainted. … But if Paul merely wanted to restrict himself to the principle at hand without providing a universal principle, he could have easily ended his discussion with the ὅτι clause (i.e., eating is wrong, “because it is not of faith”). The last statement (“Everything that is not of faith is sin”) has a maxim-like quantity, and the word πᾶν (pan, everything) is most naturally interpreted in a universal way. [Schreiner, T.R., Romans, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 738, 1998.]

Schreiner also says in a footnote on the same page “conviction [or conscience] and reliance on God should not be separated.”

Regarding the nature of our core mission, it is not to provide creation science. From our About Us page: “Our Mission: To support the effective proclamation of the Gospel by providing credible answers that affirm the reliability of the Bible, in particular its Genesis history.” That God is the ultimate standard and authority for morality, and thus the reality of morality, are crucial biblical truths rooted in Genesis 1-11. Defending objective morals thus falls within the scope of our ministry aims.

As to my qualifications, the article gets checked by at least one person with relevant credentials (and we have staff with formal training in areas relevant to this article, such as apologetics (Keaton Halley), systematic theology (Joel Tay), and NT studies (Lita Cosner)), so if there is a problem, we have people with appropriate training to pick up errors. Moreover, this article is for a general audience; must everyone who writes on a topic for a general audience have formal qualifications in the area they are commenting on? And finally, shouldn’t someone’s arguments be weighed first on the merits of the arguments themselves, rather than their credentials? Credentials indicate that the person has taken the time to study the subject in question, but that doesn’t mean others haven’t done so in other ways, and it doesn’t necessarily mean we should trust what the credentialed scholar says. I would hope that the reader would at least pay us the courtesy of critically reflecting on the arguments before citing our lack of credentials to comment on something.

As to the problem of non-Christians baulking at Moses' Law condoning stoning for adulterers, or the so-called 'genocides' of the OT, how does any of that affect the argument I put forward? Neither I nor the commenter brought up these issues. The one time I even touched on those topics (Canaanite DNA disproves the Bible?) I referred people to an in-depth defence of the Bible’s morality written by acknowledged experts on the question. Moreover, the commenter assumed we should submit to Scripture’s authority (but struggling with how to do so), so my response was aimed not at a non-Christian evaluating the faith, but at a professing Christian struggling with doubt. Therefore, in that context I am well within my rational rights to appeal to Scripture as the standard he should be evaluating his issues with.
graham P.
Excellent article, you guys are legends! To add a minor point: We could paraphrase the initial question thus 'Is it right to trust in our reason?'. This however is a moral dilemma. So we find that we are using a moral argument to decide whether morality exists....discussion over?

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