Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

The Moral Argument - part 2

This is the manuscript from a talk that I gave to Ratio Christi at NCState. The slides and audio from the talk can be found on YouTube here.

In the last section, I outlined the moral argument and explained some key concepts. In this section, I'd like to defend the first premise of the moral argument: if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. Or, to state that premise in the form of a question, do we need God to ground the existence of objective moral values and duties?

For the sake of time, I'm going to limit my discussion to naturalistic theories of morality, or theories which attempt to ground moral facts in the natural world, since naturalism is probably the dominant worldview in academia today. There are several problems with naturalistic theories of morality, but I want to call attention to the main one. In order to have any overlap with traditional ethics, all naturalistic theories of meta-ethics must somehow affirm the intrinsic value of human beings. In other words, actions like rape, murder, theft, and cruelty are wrong because they hurt human beings, who are intrinsically valuable. If naturalism cannot defend the intrinsic value of human beings, then all naturalistic theories of objective morality collapse. So let me show you why naturalism cannot account for intrinsic value posing a thought experiment.

Imagine I brought up to the stage two giant wardrobes. I said "In one of these wardrobes is a human being. In the other one is an incredibly complex, highly sophisticated collection of biochemical reactions that I spent years creating and developing. It contains proteins and lipids and DNA; it's worth millions of dollars. Now, I want you to set one of these wardrobes on fire and reduce its contents to ashes. Go ahead." What would you say? You'd say "Well, which one contains the human being?" I would say "Well, why does it matter?" And you would say "Because human beings are valuable in a way that a complex set of biochemical reactions, no matter how sophisticated, is not." And you'd be right. But why? After all, if naturalism is true, then we are simply reducible to some complex set of biochemical reactions. In fact, I tricked you. How do you know that second wardrobe doesn't also contain a human being, if human beings are merely complex biochemical reactions? If naturalism is true, then why do human beings have intrinsic value? We don't. On the other hand, if we are creatures made in God's image, then we each have tremendous value as God's image-bearers. So Christianity can explain why human beings have intrinsic value while naturalism cannot.

Let me take a moment to answer a common objection called the Euthyphro Dilemma that is often raised at this point. The Euthyphro Dilemma challenges the idea that God could be the source of objective moral values and duties. Roughly stated, it asks "does God command things because they are good or are they good because God commands them?" On the one hand, if God commands it because it is good, then there is some standard of goodness higher than God. On the other hand, if something is good simply because God commands it then the good is arbitrary, which doesn't seem right. So neither option seems possible for Christians. Let me give several short answer to this objections which shows that there is a third option. The dilemma can be avoided if we recognize that the moral nature of God is the ultimate paradigm and standard of goodness and that his commands flow out of His moral nature. How can we see that this is a plausible solution to the dilemma?

First, when this objection was originally posed, it was posed in a polytheistic context where the 'gods' were not morally perfect. They were more or less just very powerful humans given to the same moral failings that we experience. So in that context, the Euthyphro dilemma makes sense: where does goodness come from, since it certainly doesn't come from the gods. But Socrates did envision an idea called the Good which was the standard of goodness itself. What Christians claim is that God himself is the Good envisioned by Socrates such that his moral nature is the paradigm of goodness envisioned by Socrates.

Second, God's goodness is an essential part of his nature so that asking "What if God were not good is a meaningless question?" For instance, imagine that someone came to me and said "Neil, I know you love your wife and children with your whole heart. I understand that. But, for the sake of argument, hypothetically, imagine that Neil instead loathed his wife and children and wanted to kill them." I would say, "Sorry, that question doesn't make any sense. If 'Neil' hated his wife and children, 'Neil' wouldn't be 'Neil'. Loving my wife and children is so central to my character that if I did not love them, I would be someone else, not Neil.' In the same way, goodness is such an essential part of God's character that, if he were not good, we would not be God. Third, exactly the same dilemma can be raised on any realist theory of meta-ethics. For instance, if we say that human flourishing is the ultimate good, then we can ask 'Does something promote human flourishing because it is good? Or is it good because it promotes human flourishing?' So the Euthyphro dilemma is not a problem unique to theism.

Fourth, even if we take the first horn of the dilemma, that God commands things because they are good, we could then ask 'Why are good things good? Is there some higher standard of goodness to which they conform?' If there is, then we could ask 'Why is this higher standard of goodness 'good'? Is there some even higher standard of goodness to which it conforms?' And we'd be left with an infinite regress, which still needs to be terminated. The Christian answer is that God is the termination of this regress. His character is the final ground of goodness.

So for all these reasons, I think that the Euthyphro dilemma is not a valid objection to the claim that God is the ground of objective moral values and duties. And I think that all naturalistic attempts to explain the basis for objective moral values and duties fail, thus substantiating premise 1 of the moral argument. Let's stop there. In the next part of the talk, I'll defend premise 2 of the moral argument by asking: 'do objective moral values and duties exist?'


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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

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