On Quora I was invited to help answer the question “Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?”. The following is my contribution.
Yes, without an objective moral lawgiver the notion of an objective moral law is absurd.
The fundamental question when it comes to the establishment of any moral system is where obligation is derived. From a naturalistic perspective it appears that the best we can do is describe what is and can consequently never arrive at an obligatory ought. For that, it seems that a competent moral authority is required.
The formula goes like this (borrowed from notes on a recent debate):
- if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties
- if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties
To further expand on the above two points:
- Theism provides a rational ground for morality in the character of God who, properly defined, is the maximal being who is worthy of worship.
- Atheism does not provide a sound foundation for objective morality and further fails to provide the ability to ground moral duty since it provides no rational basis for human freedom.
This topic has the propensity to produce many rabbit trails on related topics so to remain on this topic we need to keep in mind that the scope of this question is limited to moral ontology. What makes something good or bad. Not moral epistemology or how we know whether something is good or not. In a recent debate with Sam Harris, Bill Craig used the example that ancient persons knew what light and darkness was even though they had no knowledge of the physical properties of light.
Many times altruism is posited as a possible secular source for morality. The problem with that theory, though, is that nature’s propensity for cruelty and suffering shows that secular morality is a myth. In order for an appeal to altruism to be credible on a naturalistic account of the universe, the existence of a selfless gene would need to be established.
While it is possible for all humans to know, intrinsically, certain moral truths, the question of foundation requires that we not care so much about the specifics of morality and, instead, focus on whence they are derived.
Here are a few excellent resources on this topic: