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.

9 thoughts on “Understanding Morality—It’s Really Not that Hard

  1. Pingback: Understanding Morality—It’s Really Not that Hard | Galileo Unchained | Secularity (under construction)

  2. Random thoughts on morality.

    This only touches the original post with one aspect (religious moral involvement) but is kind of all over the place so my apologies in advance.

    I always felt that true morality comes from altruism and empathy. Take out the social ideology and you have a fundamental morality. It’s important to state that morality is and will always be a human term that we feel is necessary to describe ourselves with in a universe that is cold and indifferent.

    Anyway, altruism and empathy… If you at one time have gone though something horrible done to you by another person or nature you do not want to see it happen to someone else (especially if you care greatly for them). That one for me is super easy to identify in general terms. It’s why anyone regardless of their beliefs would rush into a burning building or car to save a trapped infant, a pet animal, or anyone at all, even an enemy. It is a natural reaction we witness in all kinds of species and not exclusive to just humans.

    Add a social ideological construct to this that can separate and potentially demonize others and suddenly it can become less important to react naturally. That is what I might define as “true evil” or potentially the antithesis of natural morality.

    I think childhood explains things rather easily to what we really are. There is a side of people that takes pleasure in the misfortune of others (Germans call it Schadenfreude). This may seem a bit extreme to use as an example but I have seen young children (and for the sake of the argument lets say they have had no religious indoctrination) who have strapped firecrackers onto living things just to see what happens and laugh after it explodes. They were not taught to do this. Maybe this seems like an innocuous act to a child but somewhere in that brain they know they are not supposed to do this but do it anyway. To me they are psychologically exacting control out of either frustration or severe overwhelming ignorance but attempting to reinforce themselves with a show of force or dominance. In this world they feel more often they are the victims of nature and it is them who are really under control and rebel with such actions. I agree it is just plain wrong and am not justifying such actions but it is not a natural urge to roll over and belly up to the world either. When another child steps in and says “don’t do that” they often get ridiculed as part of a defense mechanism. It is that duality that defines us in the basic sense of what we are. It is ingrained in everyone whether we follow one way or the other. We either choose to act positively or negatively, we can bend our rules sometimes so that either way can be justified. I think religious morality tries to do this too but is seriously ignorant. It’s control of all aspects of nature which seems rather backwards. It’s also reliant on childish judgmental and opinionated bigotry. The inevitable conclusion I make is that trusting religion to define morality is like trusting a child these children with firecrackers. That would sound scathing to a religious person but not to me.

    Other than altruism or empathy, is seems obvious to me now is we more often define our morality through social ideologies where it is more accurately human selfishness or pandering to principles that favor one over another. Religion does this most often though and always tries to make the claim of a superior morality when it is most certainly not (unless maybe you subscribe to Jainism). If fact, it can be quite the opposite and reinforcing the control of the organization making the rules and not for the greater good of all. There are far better alternatives.

    Another problem with religious morality…

    When I did become religious I felt justified in whichever side of the duality (positively or negatively) I took. That is just plain sick and disgusting to me now. I have certainly had regrets when I behaved like that and am glad I grew out of that phase. In my atheism, I look back at it with a big “What the heck was I thinking?” or more accurately “not” thinking at all… but I digress.

    In our attempts to define morality it really comes down to opinions we agree upon in the instance based on what is to gain for the greater good hopefully using empathy or altruism, and maybe someday science. However, it still seems that it is still geared to express itself as “superior morality” as well (even without attaching a deity to it).

    When you add a flag to stand under a morality it becomes a dividing force with which can used to justify violence still. Religions certainly does this like no other but there are also, countries, race, heritage and other things that stand to differentiate people. I just call them flags, but you could call them “funny hats” like Eddy Izzard does. They categorize and classify ourselves and we still teach ourselves that the other flag is less appealing. We are masters at doing it. We define and categorize and label everything to learn about the universe but at the same time it separates us apart from each other. Add a ruler into this mix that can rally one side against another as morally “good to go” and you can have conscientiously cleared possibility for atrocities.

    There is a point to make out of all this though. When morality comes into question would a deity be necessary to add to the mix for destruction? Certainly not, but I can think of nothing more bonding to a cause than tying the supernatural to it. It is used every day in politics to sway opinion. If you place God on one side it seems like instant justification against the other. Take God out of the equation and you are left with something a bit more morally humanistic to diffuse or come to terms with… or maybe make compromises. Put God on both sides and you have mutually assured destruction to the bitter end. It seems we have never learned from history this lesson.

    It’s religion that likes to pretend it invented morality. This is just silly to me but I understand why the religious do this. It is simply to reinforce or give legitimacy to their theological views as being superior as well as a tool to control. It is a child asserting itself. Its as if they cannot understand that rules are not needed for all people. Some of us can actually figure things out for ourselves. There are intelligent people who do not require a set of instructions all over this planet. I would also argue that atheists (especially such as Sam Harris, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, and recently deceased Christopher Hitchens) have had a better handle on the these fundamental values and norms than any religion. They may be more open minded but that doesn’t mean that they are absolutely correct either though. You can map morality out however you want but it doesn’t make it universal for everyone or every situation ever. I think morality should be forever questionable and open to criticism.

    Altruism, Empathy, Social ideologies (without a deity attached) are necessary to attempt to define some sort of moral code, but it can forever change depending on the situation. One aspect to think about is that our “decided upon” morality can and will change. To state it should be static or an “absolute morality” is being foolish and unrealistic. We build our morality to suite our needs, it is self serving. Society is forever changing though so why attempt to define anything governing right or wrong morally as fixed? What may apply now may eventually someday no longer be applicable or important.

    Will there ever be a day when morality is absolutely defined for not just man, but for the entire world? The universe? I kind of hope not, but it seems like that is the goal. I would also argue that we certainly have severe control issues if that is what we are attempting to do. Our great strive towards perfection. It all makes me think: Man more or less wants to be what our projection or definition of what we describe as “God” (which is a bit sick and twisted). From a moral standpoint, I’m not certain it is even possible considering every scenario possible not just with humans but all things natural.

    It just sounds crazy and I would disagree if you think this is what humans really need to concentrate on. It is our differences that make us unique and what I have come to appreciate more and more with age.

    Really, when a person starts talking about a “perfectly moral world” my instinct is to turn my feet around and run from them in the opposite direction as fast as possible.

    To them I would say: “I don’t need your rules, no thanks.”

    I look forward to the discussion. :•)

  3. Of COURSE morality is relative. If intelligent life on Earth had arisen from mantises instead of apes, it would be sinful NOT to bite your husband’s head off after copulation. If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. If killing other people were an absolute prohibition of the absolute morality of the absolute monarch of the universe, then Catholics would have the same attitude toward a “just war” that Quakers do. If slavery were a matter of absolute morality, then there would have been no schism between Southern Baptists and Methodists on the one hand and their abolitionist northern counterparts on the other.
    In short, the best argument AGAINST a standard of absolute (not relative) morality is that it’s like unicorns: often discussed and admired in the abstract, never observed in captivity.
    Best response to someone like Greg Kokul: You religionists argue among yourselves until you can agree on the CONTENT of what you call “absolute morality” (that is, exactly what God wants us all to believe, and how he wants us to behave) and get back to us later. You’ll never hear from them again.

    • It amazes me that they make the incredibly bold claim of some sort of transcendent/supernatural grounding of morality but then make no attempt to give evidence for this. The only evidence I’ve heard from either Kokul or William Lane Craig (in a debate!) is pretty much: we all agree that objective morality exists.

      Sorry, guys. I need the evidence.

      And they can continue with this claim despite the evidence to the contrary? The good Christians on both sides of every moral issue? The fact that morality has changed through the centuries (slavery and genocide, for example).

      I dunno–is this just willful ignorance?

  4. I compare debating with a Christian apologist to playing chess with a pigeon… It flies down and lands on the board, coos, knocks over a few pieces, craps on the board and then flies away claiming victory.

    • Great analogy! The only real difference I can see is that the pigeon doesn’t damn you to eternal conscious torment in hell for not agreeing with it.

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