If you’ve ever had the experience of free-falling while in a dream, what happens when you wake up? I’m sure you didn’t continue reaching out for something to hold on to when you realized that what you thought was real turned out to be an illusion. You adjust yourself to face the true reality that you’ve discovered, which is that you are actually lying in your bed. Many people believe that morals are just a product of an allegedly unguided process of evolution. The implication is that our moral intuitions are not real; meaning that to steal or murder, for example, isn’t really wrong, it just seems that way. If this is true, how do we ground our beliefs in right or wrong in the true reality that we’ve allegedly been so clever to discover?
If our moral intuitions are an illusion like a dream is, then I’m not bound to follow them. I get to decide for myself what I think is right or wrong. Fortunately, there are persuasive reasons to continue abiding by the moral intuitions that I now allegedly know to be illusory. One could argue that the moral intuitions that stealing and murder are wrong lead to a secure and civil society, which leads to the flourishing of humans, which in turn is better for everybody. We could then form a country in which our laws have the principle of “human flourishing” as their primary motivation. Let’s call this country Flourishtopia.
On the other hand, the sovereign nation next door could decide to adopt laws that reflect the philosophy of “only the strong survive.” In such a country, only those who can keep from being killed deserve to live. It reasons that not just any human should be allowed to live, only the strongest and most fit. It reasons that if weak humans are allowed to flourish, it would contaminate society as a whole and that would ultimately lead to the downfall of humanity. As such, its laws encourage or allow its people to oppress those who are too weak to defend themselves or too stupid to keep from being exploited. In such a country property only belongs to a person to the extent that they can keep others from taking it from them through force or deceit. Let’s call this country Survivopolis.
I, and I am sure most people, are offended by the idea of a country like Survivopolis. However, the only thing that allegedly compels this moral outrage is our illusory intuition. Since Survivopolis is a sovereign country, it does not have to agree with the philosophy of Flourishtopia and is free to make up its own philosophy. Flourishtopia has no authority by which to compel Survivopolis from doing anything different. If Flourishtopia couldn’t stand the thought of people suffering in a country like Survivopolis, then their only recourse would be to go to war with Survivopolis and conquer it. However, the irony in that course of action is that Flourishtopia would thus have succumbed to the very philosophy which was so abhorrent to them in the first place; that might makes right; that only the strongest philosophy should survive.
If you are someone who takes it as a given that morality is just the byproduct of evolution, then this conclusion probably doesn’t bother you; or so you say. To such a person, morality is relative. What’s true for one country is not necessarily true for another. Even if you feel otherwise, they’d argue, we have to get over that feeling and come to grips with reality. Though a relativist would say this openly, I suspect that deep down, such a person really believes that morality is objective; meaning that it applies to Survivopolis regardless of what that country decides. Deep down such a person really believes that it was wrong for Nazis in Germany to slaughter Jews. To borrow the example often used, I suspect that the relativist doesn’t really believe that it is only his preference that the guy who robbed him not steal the relativist’s things. I think the relativist believes that it was truly wrong for the robber to steal the relativist’s things whether or not the robber truly believed he was right.
For those of us who are outraged, what are we to make of the fact that we can’t seem to shake the feeling that at least some of our moral intuitions are objectively true, even though biology has allegedly taught us that our moral intuitions are illusory? Atheistic philosophers like Bertrand Russell were able to recognize this apparent paradox. Russell and others throughout history have recognized that their belief in objective morality was incompatible with the idea that man is the ultimate source of morality. For if man is his own lawmaker, then all things are permissible. This made Russell realize that his own views were “incredible;” meaning that Russell couldn’t really live as though “all was permissible” even though, due to his beliefs, he had no authority by which he would be justified in forcing another person to do what Russell himself thought was the right thing.
Imagine if two people are playing basketball against each other. One player says that punches to the face are a valid defensive strategy and the other disagrees. Since they disagree on the level of contact that constitutes a foul, even after trying to reason with one another, how do they settle the dispute? To whom can they appeal? It’s obvious that only a referee could break the tie. If there is no referee, then one player will be forced to play by his opponent’s rules. However, it obviously seems unfair to compel somebody to do something just because we can physically make them do it. It also seems wrong to think that right or wrong is determined by whoever is more powerful among two people with opposing views. When it comes to basketball, one player calls foul on the other player by authority of the rules imposed by the referee. However, is this same approach possible when it to comes to morality? Who is the referee when it comes to human interaction?
I think the answer to this paradox is that when it comes to morality, there must be a transcendent lawgiver who imbues humans with moral imperatives that all humans are bound by, whether or not the human agrees with it. Only on this basis can we justifiably punish others for violating the moral imperatives. When the founding fathers of the United States wrote that it was self-evident that all men are endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they rightly understood that the only authority they could appeal to for these inherent human rights was God, their creator. God is the referee. God gives the law. So even, though a sovereign nation may never have agreed to be bound by the laws of a foreign land, they are bound by the laws of God. God’s law commands that all humans should be free and treated as intrinsically valuable. This principle gives Flourishtopia the right to liberate the oppressed people in Survivopolis. This principle gave the allied forces the right to prosecute Nazis as war criminals before a tribunal that the Nazis had never submitted to as an authority.
So if a person believes that morality is the byproduct of the allegedly unguided process of evolution, then that person can’t sincerely complain if somebody has different morals other than his own. That this conclusion is unlivable for most people who sincerely think about it suggests that we should rethink the idea that our moral intuitions are illusory. The fact that we think that this conclusion is unlivable should be our clue that our moral intuitions are not illusory. Once we treat our moral intuitions as objectively true, we are bound by the force of logic to see that they must be grounded in God as the ultimate authority and lawgiver. Thus anyone who believes in objective morality must also believe in God.
This reasoning leads to some obvious and controversial questions: whose God are we talking about? How do we know whether an imperative is given by God or merely created by man? These are valid questions with long and complicated answers; some of which seem to be unresolvable. For now all I will say is that God as described in the Holy Bible is consistent with the logic that we’ve just described; a transcendent creator of man. Lastly, at the very least, like the founding fathers of the United States, I believe that the answer to the question about which moral intuitions are actually divinely inspired starts with all human beings having intrinsic worth and value which entitles them to life and liberty.