Part of the extended series Evidence for the Faith
Introduction: Moral Knowledge We All Share
Do you know whether it’s right or wrong for parents to nurture their children? Do you know whether it’s right or wrong for parents to torture their children for fun? Do you know whether it’s right or wrong for a power plant to practice green environmental methods? Do you know whether it is right or wrong for a chemical plant to dump its waste products into the nearest river?
I believe you know these things. This knowledge is rooted in our humanness, and it leads to the knowledge that there is a God.
The Argument Is Not …
That’s my argument here, a version of the moral argument for God. The moral argument for God is so easy to misunderstand, I’m going to begin by explaining what it isn’t. It’s not based on either belief or behavior.
For example, some think it’s based in a claim that Christians are more likely to act morally than non-believers, but that’s not the argument—it’s not about behavior. (There is a time and place to talk about that question, but not here.)
Some think it’s based in the idea that belief in God is necessary for moral knowledge. That’s not the argument either—it’s not that believers in God have greater access to moral truths. For that question, too, there might be an appropriate time and place, but it’s not what I’m talking about here.
The Argument Is …
The moral argument for God is often stated like this:
A1. If there is no God there are no objective moral values or duties.
A2. There are objective moral values and duties.
A3. There is a God.
Today I want to take a different tack on it, however, by introducing this proposal:
B1. If there is no God, we cannot know whether any action is really right or wrong.
B2. We know that some actions really are right and others really are wrong.
B3. There is a God
Syllogism B is dependent on A in this way:
AB1. We cannot know whether any action really is right or wrong unless right and wrong are real.
AB2. We know that some actions really are right and others are wrong.
AB3. Therefore right and wrong are real.
AB4. If there is no God, then right and wrong cannot be real.
AB5. Therefore (AB3 and AB4) there is a God.
For today’s purposes I am using “action” in a broad sense that includes thoughts, intentions, and so on; and I am using the words “real” and “really” as synonyms with “objective” and “objectively:” that rightness and wrongness have objective reality that transcends human opinion and does not depend on human judgment.
The form of the argument is valid, so if AB1, AB2, and AB4 are true, then the conclusion is true: there is a God.
Premise AB2: Easy for Some, Problematic for Others
Many people can see the truth of AB2 without needing to give it a moment’s thought. For them, it’s intuitively obvious that, for example, it’s really wrong to torture one’s children for fun. Others find that problematic. I’ll have some thoughts for that second group to consider, but that’s going to run a bit lengthy and will require a separate blog post of its own. I’ll publish that in the next few days.
In the meantime, if you are among the many who have no problem with AB2, I believe today’s post should provide you sufficient reason to lead to the conclusion, there is a God. If, on the other hand, you have questions or objections relating to AB2, I’ll ask you to withhold those thoughts until that later post. I know that for you there won’t be enough here to convince you of the conclusion. This could be no more than a step in that direction, but the meat of the discussion is yet to come.
Premise AB1: 1. We cannot know whether any action really is right or wrong unless right and wrong are real.
This should be uncontroversial. Suppose you say, “I know it is wrong for you to rape my daughter,” but that there is nothing really wrong about it. In that case, what is it that you “know”?
I see two possibilities. The first would be that the word “wrong” means nothing at all, in which case obviously it’s also meaningless to say that you know whether anything is either right or wrong: there’s nothing there to be known.
The only way out of this, as far as I can see, is to equivocate on “real.” One might say, “When I say it’s really wrong, what I mean is that it’s really in violation of cultural standards, or evolutionary constraints on humans, or …” But neither of those is identical with “really wrong,” in the sense I’m using it here, and will use it in my discussion on AB2. The argument I’m making is one that has to do with our knowledge that certain things are really right and wrong in this strong, objective sense, not in any contingent human sense.
(Evolution, by the way, is contingent, not necessary, as evolutionist philosopher Michael Ruse affirms.)
So we cannot claim to know that some action is really wrong without also accepting that there is such a thing as really wrong.
AB4. If there is no God, then right and wrong cannot be real.
If right and wrong are real in the strong sense we’re using here, then they came from somewhere. Where then could that source, or fount, or root of right and wrong be? In human opinion? That would be equivocating on “real” again, as explained above . In nature? I find it hard to see how that could be, if nature is taken just to mean matter and energy interacting according to necessity (natural law) and chance. Atoms and molecules, forces and fields can do a lot of things, but they can’t do them right or wrong.
Some say that right and wrong come from evolution, but that’s imbuing evolution with a competency it doesn’t have. Evolution knows (pardon the anthropomorphism) how to identify genetic variants that are more successful in terms of survival and reproductive fitness. it knows how to produce populations that successfully make babies that make babies. It doesn’t know how to make anything right or wrong. It doesn’t know how to make successful reproduction right. It only knows how to make it happen.
Right and wrong, if they are real, must come from another source. Arguably that source must be personal, for right and wrong are a matter of interpersonal effects and relationships. And it must be transcendent, if it is to be the supplier or source of a reality that applies to humans in all places and all cultures.
Such a being, as Aquinas said, “all men call God.”
Summary So Far
To repeat what I’ve said already, if you accept AB2 as true, and if my very brief arguments for AB1 and AB4 succeed, then it seems you must accept the conclusion, “there is a God.” Since my arguments for AB1 and AB4 have been brief I expect you to raise questions about it here for us to deal with. If you have questions about AB2, I ask you again to reserve them for my next article on this topic.