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Understanding Morality—It’s Really Not that Hard

Does God exist?  Maybe not.Greg Koukl tries to hold atheists’ feet to the fire to show how they misuse moral thinking. His analysis provides good instruction in poor argumentation, but not quite in the way he hopes.

The podcast is “Making Sense of Morality” (3/6/11). As I quote Koukl below, I will use approximate time markers from the audio stream.

He starts by claiming that there are objective moral values. He didn’t define them, but William Lane Craig’s definition works: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.”1 That’s a big claim—these are moral values that are somehow grounded supernaturally or transcendentally. Never having seen evidence for supernatural or transcendent anything, I was eager to hear Koukl justify their existence. Here he goes:

Virtually no one believes the opposite. (3:23)

And that’s it. Apparently, Koukl has no argument besides, “You believe that … right?” We’re not off to a good start.

From this flabby grounding, he proposes to dismantle what many Christian apologists have admitted is the most challenging problem they face, the Problem of Evil. There is no Problem of Evil, Koukl says, unless there are objective moral values.

Such a problem could only exist if morals were objective, not relative, because we can only complain about the existence of a good powerful god with regards to the existence of evil in the world if there is actually objectively, really evil in the world, not just “evil” in our own preferences. (4:20)

No. The Problem of Evil simply points out a paradox: the Christian imagines (1) a good god who (2) tolerates a world with plenty of evil in it. How is this possible?

This is quite simple: you, Greg, would not be called good if (for example) you had the power to diffuse the tectonic energy that caused the Haiti earthquake that killed 300,000 people but didn’t—this is the Word Hygiene argument. The words “good” and “evil” are defined in the dictionary, and we don’t change the definitions when we talk about God. No objective anything is required—the Problem of Evil simply assumes that your god exists for the sake of the argument, and then it takes this idea for a drive and runs it off the unavoidable logical cliff.

Koukl continues, noting that atheists often say that evolution can explain morality. But:

[Evolution] is not going to get you a genuine, bona fide objective moral obligation; it’s just going to get you maybe the feeling of morality when morality doesn’t actually exist. (6:03)

Koukl is saying that morality is either objective or it’s nothing.

So let’s check the dictionary. “Moral” is defined as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior; ethical” or “conforming to a standard of right behavior” (Merriam-Webster). And what are these principles and standards? I suggest that they’re the laws and customs of society. The dictionary mentions no objective, supernatural, or absolute anything. Evolution programs us with moral instincts; Koukl’s imagined concern vanishes.

Next, Koukl talked about listening to an interview with professor and author Steven Stuart Williams. Williams rejected objective morality and said that we should minimize suffering. But why does he say this?

Because that’s the way I like it. (10:15)

(Note that this is Koukl’s paraphrase of Williams’ answer.) This seemed to be a bombshell to Koukl, though I don’t see why. That could be a clumsy paraphrase of my own thinking: that we strive to minimize suffering because our programming (our conscience) tells us to. This conscience punishes us with guilt when we resist it—when we didn’t stop to help someone or when we took an action that caused harm.

Why is this shocking? Greg, isn’t this the way it works for you?

The interviewer next asked Williams how he would counter a Stalin or Pol Pot.

By what standard does [Williams] say that his preference is a better morally speaking preference than those other preferences that are opposite his? And for this he had no answer. (12:30)

That’s okay—I have an answer. This is just the moral relativism fallacy. Koukl apparently imagines a dilemma: you must accept either

  • objective morality, with a supernatural or transcendental grounding for morality, or
  • relative morality, where I have my moral truths and you have yours, and I have no ability to criticize.

The problem is that this doesn’t define all the options. I see no evidence for objective morality (and Koukl doesn’t provide any), but I’m quite happy to criticize moral claims with which I don’t agree.

I think we have a shared (not objective) grounding in the programming common to all humans. That is, we aren’t seeing God’s universal moral truth but rather universally held moral instincts. Wouldn’t that explain the facts?

And now it’s time to get in a dig at the New Atheists. Koukl says that the “old time atheists” were much more intellectually honest. They followed their thinking to its logical conclusion and took their medicine, whatever that was. He cautioned his Christian listeners about slippery atheists playing games.

The old style guys would bite the bullet and they’d say, “Nope, no morality, no right and wrong, all personal preferences, just emotions … no meaning in life.” (14:50)

If you want to debate the “old style guys,” Greg, go ahead, but this doesn’t describe me. I have plenty of morality and meaning in my life, but thanks for asking. It’s just not supernaturally grounded … but then there’s no reason to think yours is, either.

So what you’re saying is, there is no transcendent morality, it is just a matter of personal opinion, and when you are put up against Mao Tse-tung, you can’t give me a reason why one person would choose one rather than the other. (15:50)

Can Koukl have never had an argument about a moral issue? Each person makes a case using the shared moral ideas of our species and culture—that’s how it’s done. Or look at a legislative debate for a more formal example.

Bizarrely, the interviewer then asks,

Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to have God ground [morality] on a purely pragmatic basis? (16:25)

Do you hear what you’re saying? You’re wondering if reality is satisfying? As if we have a choice! It’s reality—we’re stuck with it! The focus should be on figuring out what reality is and working with it.

Williams argued that he could live a good life, but Koukl accuses him of playing word games:

What exactly do you mean by “good” here? I know what he meant by “good”; he meant by “good” the same thing his theistic interviewer meant by “good.” The problem is, he has no right to those terms because they aren’t at home in the worldview he was arguing for. (18:20)

And we’re back to consulting the dictionary. Show me the objective part of the definition of “good” that would make it inappropriate if said by an atheist. We have a common definition for words; that’s how communication works. Where’s the problem?

When we say we can punish people for doing bad, [Williams means] that we could still punish people for doing things that are contrary to [his] personal preference. (20:45)

Duh—doesn’t everyone want laws to be in accord with their own views of right and wrong? We make compromises as members of a society, but obviously we’d like the laws to be as in line with our personal morality as possible.

Koukl ends by encouraging his listeners to listen carefully to make sure the other guy is using moral language and concepts correctly.

Finally—something we can agree on.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

1William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 17.

Related links:

  • “Morality 1: Good without Gods,” QualiaSoup (video, 13:25), 6/23/11.
  • “Morality 2: Not-so-good Books,” QualiaSoup (video, 14:10), 7/28/11.
  • “Morality 3: Of Objectivity and Oughtness,” QualiaSoup (video, 17:12), 11/6/11.

About Bob Seidensticker
  • http://www.facebook.com/karludy Karl Udy

    The key question for the existence of morality is not “Why is x right/wrong?” but “Why is there a right/wrong?”

    Where do the concepts of “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “evil” come from? It seems to me that the existence of such concepts, ie the fact that we live in a moral world demands an explanation, and that science cannot explain it. This concept is universal among humans, yet remarkably absent in other creatures.

    Laws and customs rely upon this concept of right and wrong, they do not invent the concept.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      I honestly don’t see the problem. Look up these words in the dictionary–there’s no need to imagine a supernatural or absolute grounding for them. These are human words to describe characteristics we see as humans. And why are these characteristics here? Why do humans have a sense of right and wrong? That’s like asking: why do chimpanzees have a sense of right and wrong? Why do dogs scratch at their bedding before lying down? How do baby birds know how to fly? It’s part of their programming.

      • http://www.facebook.com/karludy Karl Udy

        OK, so we have one explanation, that a moral being (ie God) is responsible for our world being moral in nature, and another, that it just “is” that way.

        And how exactly your explanation is better?

      • Retro

        Karl said: “OK, so we have one explanation, that a moral being (ie God) is responsible for our world being moral in nature, and another, that it just “is” that way.”

        So you’re accusing the naturalistic explanation of being a “just-so” story?

        How do you test your claim that “God did it”? How could your claim be proven to be true? How could your claim be proven to be false? Exactly how does God do it?

        Karl said: “And how exactly your explanation is better?”

        Your “explanation” actually doesn’t explain anything. You have a claim, not an explanation.

      • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

        You’re asking why a scientific explanation is better? Because it actually explain things.

        You might ask yourself why a scientific explanation is better as you type on a computer and read these words on a monitor and communicate over the Internet.

      • http://www.facebook.com/karludy Karl Udy

        Retro, the same questions can be posed to you. If you say that an understanding of the concepts of right and wrong are just part of our programming, how do you test that? How could it be proven false? How does nature do it? Not many answers are there?

        Bob, I haven’t actually seen a scientific explanation. Just the claim that it’s “part of our programming.”

        If you want to reduce the claims down to their most rudimentary, we’re talking about “Our nature is that because God is that way” or “Our nature is that way because our nature is that way.”

        No matter what reservations you may hold about bringing God into the equation, it certainly beats the self-referential state of the alternative.

      • Retro

        Karl said: “Retro, the same questions can be posed to you. If you say that an understanding of the concepts of right and wrong are just part of our programming, how do you test that? How could it be proven false? How does nature do it? Not many answers are there?”

        It’s being done by researchers all the time. You can even participate if you wish: http://wjh1.wjh.harvard.edu/~moral/index.html

  • Bob Calvan

    Karl Udy

    Right on!

    And the Athesist can not account for Morality. Or human dignity.

  • Nossaj

    Man o man…

    “…ie the fact that we live in a moral world”…

    What world are you living in?! There are moral people, and immoral people. Those who live with human dignity, and those who live without. Those that believe in god, and those who don’t. Depending on what CULTURE you were raised in, your belief in god will vary, and as a result there are extreme differences in the the terms of morality and dignity. Hindu, muslim, whatever. Morality is a mater of perception. Its “moral” and “just” to kill an infidel, just as the holy crusades were some part of God’s will. People like to excuse immoral actions based on the illusion of a “higher” morality or purpose. Look at tv evangelists, they are rocking rolex watches collecting money for god while emptying the pockets of those truly in need.. .and that is moral / dignified?!

    Morality is more about regional perspective and conscious decision rather than any absolute truth. If there was some form of absolute truth and we existed in a moral world, immoral actions would not be supported or hidden by a church (sex scandals). I find that some of the most immoral people in the world are the ones decrying that those without their belief system are inherently immoral based on generalized and forced delusion.

    We do NOT live in a moral world, and people behave according to their own human environment. Right and wrong is a matter of x and y, because it depends on “z” (who you are, how you were raised, what part of the world you live in, etc). There is no such thing as right / wrong, good / evil, because it depends on what side of the fence you’re on. It was “right” to bomb Hiroshima, it was “evil” to bomb Pearl Harbor. It was “wrong” to attempt to assassinate Reagan, it was “good” to kill Osama. To me, absolutely… to others?

    Is god on my side, or are there no absolutes?

    • http://www.facebook.com/karludy Karl Udy

      Nossaj,
      You are barking up the wrong tree.

      It would help if you read my quote in full. My meaning of a moral world (which is quite clear if you take the time to re-read my comment) is one in which there is such a thing as right and wrong. Regardless of the particulars of what various people say is right and wrong, it woud be a strange claim indeed to say that there is no such thing as right and wrong.

      • Retro

        Karl said: “…it woud be a strange claim indeed to say that there is no such thing as right and wrong.”

        No one is saying that there is no right and wrong at all, just that there is no ABSOLUTE right and wrong. Right and wrong are relative.

        If you think there is such a thing as an absolute right and wrong, simply read the Bible. Biblical morality is based on the will of God, and the will of God changes, so even Biblical morality is RELATIVE morality. If God wants you to kill humans , then it’s moral to kill humans and immoral not to kill.

  • Bob Calvan

    Bob S
    You said evolution programs us fro moral instincts.. Where is you material empirical evidence for this? Or it that just a guess you have come up with?

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      I’m not a biologist, so I can’t give you a solid answer. However, I lean on biologists who do make this claim.

      I simple way to see some evidence of this is to see morality in other animals–a sense of fairness, commiseration and sympathy, nurturing, and other human qualities.

  • Bob Calvan

    Nossaj you said:

    “What world are you living in?! There are moral people, and immoral people….”

    For there to be immoral people there must be a moral standard you use to determine who the immoral people are?

    What standard of morality are you using to make your statement?

    Do you have a list or something to determine who these immoral people are? And where did it come from?

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      The moral standard is the shared standard that we have as a society. No need for anything supernatural.

      And, of course, you seem to imagine that you don’t have this problem, but when you look at the long history of changes in what’s considered right and wrong, the existence of objective morality becomes all the harder to imagine.

  • Bob Calvan

    Bob S said:
    ” I’m not a biologist, so I can’t give you a solid answer. However, I lean on biologists who do make this claim….”

    You can’t give a solid answer because there is no scientific proof that morality is instinctive through the process of evolution.

    Bob S said:

    ” I simple way to see some evidence of this is to see morality in other animals–a sense of fairness, commiseration and sympathy, nurturing, and other human qualities.”

    Oh, ok? Duh, how stupid of me? Like when the male lion goes to other prides and steals the mothers cubs and kills them. gottcha? So by instinct I can go to my neighbors house and take her baby and kill it. Yes, I can see how morality is instinctive from evolution now..Thanks for clearing that up for me. ROFL !!!!!!!!

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Bob C:

      You can’t give a solid answer because there is no scientific proof that morality is instinctive through the process of evolution.

      First, there is no scientific proof for anything. Science deals with evidence, not proof.

      Second, you make quite a bold statement here. I wasn’t aware that this was the scientific consensus. Show me.

      Duh, how stupid of me?

      I didn’t want to broach this but, since you introduced the topic, yeah. Stupid.

      What the lion does is nothing compared to what humans do. There is no equivalent of genocide or revenge or sadism or even fury within lions. They kill where they need to (to eat or to propagate). And then they stop. Humans are savages–that big brain that gave us morality and invented religion also has perfected the dark side of morality.

      I’ll repeat for those whose ears aren’t closed to new information: if you look up the grape experiment with monkeys, you’ll begin to see what I mean about morality in other animals.

    • http://www.theologyweb.com lao tzu

      If you are unfamiliar with what science has discovered about the evolution of morality, and wish to comment on it without appearing like a buffoon, you should look it up.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?term=evolution%20of%20morality&sourceid=mozilla-search&search=Search&db=pmc&cmd=search&pmfilter_Fulltext=on&pmfilter_Relevance=on&inputpage=0

      I have never, not once, ever, found any issue brought forward by a critic of evolution that had not long since been addressed in the literature, and this issue is no exception.

      As ever, Jesse

  • Bob Calvan

    Bob said:
    The moral standard is the shared standard that we have as a society. No need for anything supernatural.

    Really? So you think morality is a convention of society.. So when did society meet and sit together and come up with a list of moral standards? As you just claimed?

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      It’s like you’re a newcomer to human society. Surely you’ve seen this.

      Are you unaware of how laws are formed? People do indeed sit together and come up with standards. Not identical to morality, but there’s much overlap here. Or social conventions. Did standing up when ladies enter the room or taking your hat off come from God or did humans just sort of figure this out and propagate the custom?

      • Nossaj

        There is a great book on this, “The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge” By Berger and Luckmann. Societal “norms” are very consciously created, and they are reinforced throughout society to appear as if they’ve always been there. Morality is treated in the same vein; its a thought out process that is invented to adjust to how a given society functions. Religion propagandizes these moral “truths” so that we just accept them and don’t question where they came from. Arguing that moral truths have, “always been there”, or, “morality has been defined by God” are not logical statements, but edicts to reinforce the societal norms and our hand crafted “rule book”.

  • Rick T

    Bob,

    You ought to call Greg Koukl’s show and make these claims. Let him answer for himself rather than writing about him on what to him is likely an obscure blog and to which he is unlikely to respond. He’s live every Sunday 2-5 pm PST, see http://www.str.org. Let us know how that conversation goes.

    Rick

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