I recently engaged with an atheist friend about the question of objective morality. He has claimed that morality is objective, though it is not based upon God and that in fact God does not exist. My claim is also that it is objective, but that it can ONLY be grounded in the existence of God. I wanted to write out my argument carefully, and he has been invited to respond to it. Should he do so, I will gladly post his replies on this post.
When we being discussing the origin of morality, we have to be clear about what we mean. So, for instance, the question of how humans come to their understanding of morality (from parents, culture, intuitions, etc.) would not have the same answer to the question of the origin of morality proper, supposing morality is in fact not simply a product of human minds and human culture. Morality in the first sense (how we form our moral opinions) has a large degree of subjectivity attached to it. But for morality to be objective, it must be independent of our opinions of it, and we must be obligated to follow it.
There are at least three necessary components required for
1. objective morality to exist, and 2. for human beings to be obligated to obey said objective moral standard. They are:
(1) There must be a transcendent mind who is in a position to obligate us. When we say that a man “should not” do x or “should” do y, we are asserting that he is held to a standard outside of himself– his tastes, desires, and even his genetically contributed proclivities. He can thus be condemned for failing to live up to a standard of human behavior that he *ought* to live in accordance with.
(2) Human beings must be able to exercise free choices to obey or disobey the objective standard.If a human being has no freedom of the will, she cannot be told that she “should” do anything. She will simply do what she is programmed to do in any given scenario. This means that her conclusions (whether moral or intellectual) are not reasoned to because the conclusion follows from right premises, but because the atoms in her brain are so arranged that she will reach that conclusion, whether or not her premises are valid. So even if there is an objective standard, without free will humans cannot be obligated to follow it.
(3) Human beings must be able to access this standard. One cannot be held accountable to do something that she has no idea exists.
Christian theism meets all of these qualifications (it could be argued that some forms of Calvinism don’t meet the second qualification, but I’m not arguing for that type of Christian theism).
Atheistic materialism (from here on out referred to as AM), the worldview of most atheists today, meets none of them. The closest it comes is to the third point, since proponents of AM will often claim that the human being (whether his mind or his genetics) IS the source of morality. Some go further in an attempt to make this morality objective and claim that it, though originating FROM the subject, is somehow objective TO the subject.
However, for (3) to really be met as a qualification for objective morality, it must hang on the condition that (1) and (2) are also true. If the atheist attempts to satisfy (3) without (1) and (2), he is left in a position where a human being behaves the way she does because she is compelled by her nature– the atheist is simply trying to squeeze an “ought” out of an “is.” But the problems this poses are too heavy a load for AM to bear. If a man commits rape or murder because he desires to, or because his genetics compel him to, this must now be called objective morality, because it is valuable and desirable to him. In other words, according to a consistent AM which bases objective morality on the individual, the actions of any human being, from Mohandas Gandhi to Mao Ze Dong, are by definition equally moral. To borrow an apothegm from a contemporary cultural influence, if AM wants to place objective morality on genetic propensity, they must concede that since the sociopath or pedophile is “born this way,” he’s on “the right track.” Broadening the scope from the individual to the society or the state does not alleviate this problem, because the group is simply made up of individuals.
A proponent of AM might try to refocus their claim that genetics determines morality by pointing out that genetic propensities, according to naturalistic evolutionary theory, exist for the purpose of keeping ourselves alive and passing on our seed (something like this is found in formulations of Dawkins’ selfish gene model or Ayn Rand’s Objectivism). Thus, behavior which doesn’t accomplish this goal may be said to be dysfunctional or immoral– we have no inherent obligations to others, only obligations to ourselves that sometimes require, for rational self-interest, that we defer to others. As a result, according to our genes, other beings exist only to prop up our existence and propagation. It may be necessary to treat them favorably to get something from them (the so-called social contract), but what we call morality is essentially selfish at root. When treating others how we’d like to be treated is at odds with our self-interest, our moral obligation is to act in our self-interest. In other words, loving behavior without self-interest must be a malfunction on AM+SG. This not only still fails to be objective, but doesn’t correspond to even the most basic of universal moral intuitions.
In contrast, the Christian worldview posits that there are objective moral standards which humans are obligated to follow. Because God has created the universe and made human beings in His image, He can obligate us to follow His guidance, and these principles will be consistent with living a harmonious existence in the universe which He has created. It doesn’t matter if we glean these principles from Scripture or if we access them through our God-given mental and spiritual faculties (that is a question of epistemology– how we know things; not ontology– the way reality actually is)– if objective morality is to exist at all, it must find its origin in a transcendent Creator, and not in the opinions of human beings.
That is not to say that God determines this moral code on a whim. Christianity posits that the two greatest commandments are built upon love (love for God, love for neighbor). This in turn is built on the premise that God is love. This can only logically be true of the Christian God, because the Christian God is three persons in one God, existing in love and full communion. Without love, God could not exist. Love is God’s most essential quality. As a result, the moral values which flow from His nature into His creation will be based on love. This is not an arbitrary divine fiat (as it might be on Judaism or Islam), but the world reflecting the nature of its Creator.
It is only on Christian theism that morality can be objective and meaningful. On any other view it becomes subjective and arbitrary.