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.