Morality is one of the most hotly debated topics among theists and atheists. I believe there are two major reasons for this: It’s incredibly complicated and therefore confusing, and it affects the way we live our lives and treat one another. It could be argued that nothing is more important. In this series of posts I’m going to share some of my thoughts on morality and explain why the theistic view of morality doesn’t make sense.
The Moral Argument for God’s Existence
I’m about to present irrefutable proof that unicorns exist. Are you ready? Here goes:
1. If beauty is objective and absolute, unicorns must exist.
2. Beauty is objective and absolute.
3. Therefore, unicorns must exist.
Brilliant, right? I came up with it myself. What, you’re not convinced? But some of the greatest thinkers in history have used the same reasoning to prove the existence of god. For example, the Scottish philosopher W.R. Sorley put it this way:
1. If morality is objective and absolute, God must exist.
2. Morality is objective and absolute.
3. Therefore, God must exist.
This argument is just as nonsensical as my argument that unicorns exists. So were all the brilliant men who used this argument wrong? Yes.
The moral argument is one of the weakest arguments in the Christian apologist’s toolkit, yet for some reason it’s one of the most popular. I first came across it in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis who wrote, “conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver.”
In other words, “You know murder is wrong. You just know it. But how do you know it? God must have told you.” C.S. Lewis is arguing that we are all born with an innate sense of right and wrong and that this sixth sense must have been planted in our minds by God.
This is demonstrably false. Throughout history there have been a wide variety of cultures with very different ideas about morality. Misogyny, polygamy, incest, pedophilia, racism, slavery, infanticide, human sacrifice, cannibalism, genocide–all of these acts have been widely praised and encouraged by one culture or another.
Had C.S. Lewis been born and raised in a cannibalistic tribe, it is doubtful he would have had any objections to cannibalism. There is simply no evidence that we are born with the rules of morality written on our hearts.
Objective Moral Values
Theists often claim that whether or not we are born with a sense of morality, there are still objective moral values we ought to follow. This is called moral realism. The idea is that morality is an objective feature of the universe, like gravity or the speed of light. According to moral realists, right and wrong are not a matter of opinion. Rather, right and wrong are facts of nature that exist independent of humans and their subjective opinions.
Here’s a thought experiment: Most moral realists would say that murder is wrong. But what if there were a universe with no humans? Would murder be right or wrong? Neither because there would be no such thing as murder if humans didn’t exist. The idea wouldn’t even make sense. Before there can be moral values, there have to be valuers who can value things (such as human life).
However, humans do exist and moral values also exist, just not in the metaphysical sense. So what exactly are moral values? They are subjective standards of good and evil. For example, if you value human happiness, then you will probably think murder is immoral. But if you value human suffering, then you might think not murdering is immoral. It all depends on what you value. There is nothing objective about it.
This is true of anything that can be valued. What is the value of gold? Most people would ask for at least $1200 in exchange for an ounce of gold, but someone who is starving to death might give it up for a sandwich. The gold doesn’t have any intrinsic value. Rather, its value varies from person to person depending on their desires, circumstances, and preferences. And the same is true of moral values.
This idea makes many theists uncomfortable because they like to think their personal morality applies to everyone. It’s not enough for them to say they think murder is wrong. They want to be able to say it is wrong. They believe that if there is no universal standard of morality, they would have no grounds to criticize horrific events such as the holocaust. And in a way, they’re right.
Without a universal standard of morality, we can only call the holocaust evil when measuring it against a subjective moral standard, namely the standard of human life and happiness. Fortunately, most people share this standard, whether they realize it or not.
The point is, moral values are subjective by definition. Values depend on the desires of the person doing the valuing. But for something to be objective, it has to be true despite anyone’s values. Therefore, the term “objective moral values” is an oxymoron. The idea that morality is objective and absolute is as silly as the idea that beauty is objective and absolute. Beauty, like morality, is in the eye of the beholder.
In my next post I will talk about what it would mean if objective moral values did exist.