Tag Archives: moral argument

Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?

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):

Two claims

  • 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:

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Freedom in forms

Ellis Potter, in a talk posted by Apologetics315, made an assertion that I found to be quite helpful in explaining how Christianity is not, as Christopher Hitchens asserts; evil, totalitarian, and oppressive .

All things comport to a particular form (or several related forms) and when the form one is made to conform to is violated, bad things result. Ellis’s point does not end here, however, as this by itself would sound no different than the moral argument, which itself is solid. Coming from a Buddhist background, Ellis posits that there is “freedom in forms”.

Take gravity for instance. It’s form grants us the freedom to easily and predictably move from point A to point B and any attempts to violate the form of gravity are met with swift consequences. It is easy to focus on the negative consequences that result from attempts to violate the form of gravity. But what we ought to focus on are the freedoms we gain by understanding and honoring gravity.

With the form of gravity we are free to walk around and not float off into space. While we generally take this freedom for granted, all we need to do is look to the trouble astronauts must go through to accomplish even the most basic task in space where there is no (or very little) gravity. Without the form our bodies have been designed for even the most basic task of eating, sleeping, and using the bathroom become monumental chores that require teams of experts to find solutions for the most basic functions.

Ellis goes on to state that violation of form is not a violation of freedom. We do not consider our lack of ability to defy gravity on our own to be a violation of our freedom. We are still free to choose within the form we’ve been placed. Namely, we can choose to sit, walk, run, and jump all because we exist within the form of gravity.

And this leads me to a very import insight Ellis’s train of thought elucidates: Wanting to violate our form means we want to be God.

Wanting to operate or lay hold of choices outside your from means you wish to change your from. A desire to choose outside of moral forms is an implicit statement that we think we can run the rest of the universe. At the least we express a desire to have unlimited control over our corner of the universe, meaning we do not wish to be under any restrictions whatsoever.

And therein lies the rub of Christianity. Do we accept that we are contingent beings that exist in certain forms or do we wish to change those forms to suit our needs and then get mad when we discover that we are not the master of our universe?

I, for one, love the forms that exist. They help me “run the race with endurance marked out before us” (Hebrews 12:1-3).

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