Friday, August 21, 2009

Moral Grounding

(Stand to Reason) Greg Koukl

A common objection to God’s existence is the existence of evil. How could there be a God if there is so much evil in the world? My observation is that in order for that objection to gain any traction, there has got to be real evil or a violation of a real good. You can’t be a relativist and ask this question without being disingenuous. It’s intellectually dishonest if you don’t believe in objective morality to ask about the objective evil in the world. So if there’s a real problem of evil, there has to be real evil. In order for evil to be real, there’s got to be real good. That is foundational.

The objection makes use of a moral standard. If evil is real, then there’s a standard that allows us to identify what is good and what is evil. I think we have the standard built into us and that is why we can look at acts of injustice and immediately know that they are wrong. Our conscience has this ability. I refer to it in the Relativism book as “moral intuitions.” Moral intuition is a way of knowing that’s built into us that we can grasp something that’s true. The thing we grasp is not physical. We’re not looking at it with our eyes. We’re looking at it with a different faculty, but it’s still just as real. This is why people spontaneously react when they see examples of injustice and react, “That’s wrong.”

What makes it so? How is it that things like injustice or cruelty to people or animals are wrong?

We see an act of goodness and it moves us deeply. I think goodness is one of the things that touches us deeply when we watch films that are effective. There is something deep and morally good about an event, a look on the face, a gesture, something noble that happens and it moves us. Consequently, we are deeply touched and maybe even tempted to weep at that moment in the film because something real and truthful that is morally good has been awakened in our heart. So our awareness of objective morality expresses itself both in our awareness of evil and of good.

The grounding question is: Given that there is real evil and good, as well, why is the world the way it is? What properly accounts for this moral feature of the world?

If you are a materialist you cannot answer that question, you cannot explain how morality emerges from material things. There’s no adequate explanation for morality in a purely physical world.

When you reflect on the nature of morality, it has a certain incumbency to it, an oughtness to it. There is an obligation. It isn’t just descriptive, what people did do. It’s what we ought to do. So what best explains this? And obligations seem to be the kinds of things that are held between persons. Therefore, if we have moral laws it seems to suggest there must be a moral law maker, who is the adequate sovereign to make that kind of law obligatory on us.

The existence of objective morality that entails obligation on human beings seems to be best grounded, or accounted for, by the existence of another personal being who himself is the moral law maker and the appropriate sovereign to make such laws that make such demands upon us. That sounds to me a lot like what Christians mean when they say God.

I got some push-back on this particular point from a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy from Purdue when I spoke there recently. He said that just because you have standards it doesn’t mean you have a standard-maker. I said that that wasn’t my argument, that all standards require standard-makers. My argument is more precise than that. My argument is that moral standards, which are a peculiar kind of standard, require a moral maker or one that stands behind it and grounds it in some sense.

Let me give you an illustration that I think makes sense of how this grounding problem works. You can read a newspaper because the skills needed to read newspapers are things that we are capable of developing. So we have the ability to read the information. But what if you said that there are no authors to newspaper articles; there are no delivery boys; there are no editors; there are no headline writers. Those don’t exist. You acknowledge there are newspaper articles, but you deny that there needs to be an explanation for them.

Now that sounds very odd because when you consider the kinds of things that newspaper articles are. They seem to be the kinds of things that require authors. There are thoughts communicated, there are propositional statements that are functions of minds, not matter. No propositions are made of matter. They can be tokened with matter, like ink on a page, but the propositions themselves are not material. Newspaper articles represent the information and propositions, but you say that there is no mind needed for this. That strikes me as really odd.

Newspaper articles, if there are such things, require an explanation. They need grounding, a source. They suggest the existence of authors because that is an adequate explanation for newspapers. I think it’s a perfect parallel with morality. Morality is the kind of thing we also have discovered exists, and it seems to be the kind of thing that requires an author adequate to explain its existence.

So I’m within my epistemic rights to say someone like God is the grounding for morality.

By the way, a common response from atheists to the grounding question is to object that he could be just as moral without God as the theist. Atheists say this all the time. That’s like saying there doesn’t need to be any authors. How do you know? Because I can read really well. Well, the ability to read really well doesn’t have anything to do with the question of whether what you’re reading needs an author. And the ability to behave really well, be moral, and be aware of what moral guidelines doesn’t obviate the need for a moral lawmaker. Those are two separate issues.

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