I know that sounds like something one hears in Sunday school. It’s simple. It’s almost trite. But there is a great deal that is implied by it. Most of the time when someone says that, what they are implying is that God is a good person that loves us and has our best interests at heart. While that’s true (we don’t have to worry about that right now – we’ll work that out in a later post), “God is good” carries a lot more weight than that.
What does it mean for God to be good?
Traditionally, “God is good” means that, not only is God a good person, but God is the source of all morality. When it comes to determining what counts as good and bad in the world, God is the one that does the determining based on His character (not to be confused with His commands). This is the case whether or not anyone behaves morally, whether or not anyone agrees with what is moral or immoral, or even (oddly enough) if the circumstances in question do not exist. For example, even if everyone is raping and murdering extraterrestrial children, it is wrong. Even if everyone thinks its right to rape and murder extraterrestrial children, it is wrong. Even though there are no extraterrestrial children, if there were it would be wrong to rape and murder them. Such moral laws apply to everyone at all times and in all places. This is what is meant by objective morality.
Many people deny that objective morality exists. They see morality as human constructs that we developed to get along with one another, much like civil and criminal laws. While there are similarities, there are differences which we will discuss later. Some see morality as having evolved naturally along with humanity. Both of these views have problems, but for now, understand this: When it comes to how a person is treated, that person almost always treats morality objectively. When someone wrongs them, they offer moral reasons why they shouldn’t. They offer objective standards which they think people are held to which the offender is not meeting. They are right, but in doing so they have admitted that objective morality exists. Why? Because the only effective arguments that would suggest that someone ought do or not do something are objective moral arguments. Chief of those is this: We ought to be moral people. I know, it seems so simple, but every argument in favor of moral relativity (read: not objective) suffers from the same problem, which is we can simply deny that we’re obligated to do it.
Let me give an example based on a conversation I had with a dude who is a moral relativist:
Me: You don’t think morality is objective?
Dude: Nope. Morality is constructed. We as a society determine what is right and wrong.
Me: Why should I follow society’s morality if I can get away with it?
Dude: That’s what criminals always think. They get caught.
Me: Not all of them. Not by a long shot. From the simple purse snatchers to the investment bankers. How many of those Wall Street guys who were responsible for the recession go to jail? At best, they lost the goose that laid the golden egg, but they already had a lot of eggs. They got away with it. Is what they did wrong?
Dude: Yeah, because they broke the agreed upon laws.
Me: Who said they ever agreed? They behaved as if they would get in trouble if they got caught, but they didn’t seem to think they had any obligation not to do it.
Dude: But it’s obvious that what they did was wrong.
Me: I agree, but that’s because stealing is wrong. It was wrong when they did it, it was wrong before anyone found out they did it, and it was wrong even when they deny it.
Dude: You’re just forcing your morality on others.
Me: Nope, I’m just admitting that morality applies to everyone, whether we like it or not.
All one has to do is refuse to be a member of the community or disguise oneself as a member in good standing and that person can remove his obligation to the community if all morality is constructed by society. All one has to do is assume they are evolving differently from the rest of us (and who is to say they aren’t), and that person no longer has to obey the same “embedded” moral intuitions the rest of us do. Unless, of course, morality really is objective. Then, all explanations to the contrary are irrelevant.
Can't objective morality be explained naturally?
We will go into a deeper discussion in a later post on reasons why morality is objective rather than relative, but for now, suffice to say that we are assuming morality is objective. That brings us to our argument:
Morality is objective.
If morality is objective, it cannot be explained by naturalism.
Therefore, morality cannot be explained by naturalism.
If naturalism cannot explain something, the explanation must be supernaturalism.
Therefore, the explanation for morality must be supernatural.
We already covered #1 above. I’ll admit this is where the argument is the most vulnerable, but space doesn’t allow me to go into as much detail as I’d like. We’re going to dig into this a lot deeper in a later post, so for now, be patient. For now, let’s assume #1 is true. What about the rest of this?
If morality is objective, it cannot be explained by naturalism. This is a premise that most professionals accept readily. The atheist philosopher Michael Ruse has explicitly said so, as do most ethicists that I (Troy) have read. Only a small handful try and hold onto both. Why such reticence? First, you might have heard that “you can’t get an ought from an is”, and while there is a lot to nature, there are very few oughts. Just because something happens regularly a certain way doesn’t mean it should. Just because one person is kind to another does not mean all should or should not be. Just because one person is violent towards another does not mean anyone else should or should not be. Nature is amazingly amoral (having no morality at all). If that is the case and we are a part of nature, how objective moral obligations arise remains to be demonstrated (rather than speculated). Second, when attempts have been made to render morality objective within a naturalistic framework, two things tend to happen. The first is that what seems moral turns into something completely amoral. Moral actions end up being grounded in behaviors and intentions that are morally irrelevant. Never mind that nature, by definition, has no goals whatsoever, and therefore morality, which is goal-directed (being a good person, etc.), is absolutely irrelevant. Second, it is entirely possible (perhaps even likely) that the goals that are achieved by the allegedly moral behavior can be achieved by other means. Propagate one’s genes (genes are rather selfish, aren’t they)? Why not rape more mates and therefore increase the likelihood of progeny? Protect your offspring? Why not eliminate the weak ones yourself to focus attention on the strong ones? Why not attack the young to encourage a defensive posture that will protect them as they develop? On a naturalistic view of things, none of these is at all inappropriate, but if you’ve got any common humanity, these suggestions should creep you out a bit. Therefore, either our moral intuitions are wrong or naturalism can’t explain them.
Since #3 is just the result of #1 and #2, it has to be true if the premises are. In either case, it does follow. However, #4, “If naturalism cannot explain something, the explanation must be supernaturalism”, is often challenged. To be honest, I know exactly why and it is kind of stupid. The usual criticism is one of the following.
“How do you know that naturalism can’t explain morality? Maybe we just haven’t figured it out yet.”
The reason this is kind of stupid is because the challenger has failed to grasp what is being said. According to #2, this is not an issue of empirical observation, but rather deductive inference. No amount of additional observation is going to change the deductive inference. Deduction starts with facts and reaches a logical conclusion. Some of those facts may be hypothetical as they are in this case, but we can’t just ignore them since they are the facts the naturalists are presenting. Not only are they facts, they are deeply embedded in the naturalists framework rather than mere peripheral specifics. To change those fundamental facts (i.e., nature has no intentionality) is to abandon naturalism. If we can’t change the facts and the deductive inference is valid, naturalism is at a dead end.
“Just because we don’t have a natural explanation doesn’t mean God is the default.”
Except that it does. If naturalism isn’t true, then supernaturalism necessarily is. When it comes to supernaturalism, the issue is once again intentionality. Having a goal, a point to what is being done, an end game as it were. As far as anyone knows (and I do mean anyone), agents are the only things that display intentionality. (If you haven’t read the previous post on God being a person, you might want to do that. Right now. Go ahead. We’ll wait.) That means that if supernaturalism is true, then whatever is the source of morality has also got to be a moral agent, which has to be a person (you did read the last post, didn't you?). While it is logically possible to be some being other than God, it’s hard to see what atheism gets by allowing that and even harder to see why any atheist would want to (other than to prevent any particular God from being the answer which is still just as possible).
Since we’ve already established that a powerful, non-physical, eternal person exists, it’s at least possible that that person is the source of morality, especially if the only other minds we know of (our own) demonstrate similar qualities. We do make moral assessments pretty often, don’t we? We evaluate our behavior and that of others rather readily, and sometimes even without giving it a second thought. Such a proclivity for moral intuition seems out of place in a naturalistic world, but if God exists it seems entirely appropriate for us to think along similar lines if He made us to relate to Him in some way. And that may be what the point is. Not just so we can be nice to each other, but so we can get a glimpse of what God really wants or intends for us to be.
Can we Be Good Without God? - Reasonable Faith
God, Evolution, and Morality - Stand to Reason Part 1
God, Evolution, and Morality - Stand to Reason Part 2
Is God Real? God is the Best Explanation for Objective Moral Laws - Cold Case Christianity