Monday, February 14, 2011
The Necessary Characteristics of Moral Absolutes
An atheist protested that we don’t need God to be good. Specifically, we don’t need God to have unchanging, universal, moral absolutes. He claims that there are other possible causes that might account for moral absolutes (“objective morals”), like genocide is wrong:
• For example, moral properties might supervene on natural objects, or alternatively, moral value might be an emergent property. Both of those positions are, as far as I can tell, live options, neither of them requires God, both result in objective morals (independent of what we think), and they're not exhaustive of non-theistic moral realism(s) (Ideal Observer Theory would be another, for example).
If you don’t understand, don’t worry about it; I don’t either, at least not completely. However, it is clear that he would like to find a way that morality can simply arise naturally from the physical world, like life emerging naturally from the muck.
This is not only unlikely; it’s impossible. There are certain requirements that the “muck” explanation can’t possibly fulfill. Let me just try to list a few:
1. TRANSCENDENT: Moral absolutes must be higher than any other standard and must take precedent over all of our personal convictions that fail to conform to the absolute standard. Secular Humanism fails here because, when there is a disagreement, there isn’t a higher standard to which to appeal. When the husband informs his wife that he is justified in having an affair, and she says he isn’t, there is no higher standard which can mediate between them. Polytheism is no better, if there is no supreme truth-giving Being.
2. IMMUTABLE/ETERNAL: If morality is changing, then there’s nothing absolute about it. We can’t even speak about moral truth without immutability. Here today; gone tomorrow! Consequently, “majority rules” can’t account for moral absolutes. In the world of molecules-in-motion, there seems to be no other way to account for immutable truth but to invoke a Transcendent God. Objects change. Therefore, if moral absolutes depend upon physical objects, it too will be changing.
3. OMNIPRESENT: The absolutes must be universal. Genocide must be wrong in the Sahara as well as in outer space. If the same standards don’t apply everywhere, then if I want to do something heinous, I’ll just go to the place where it’s allowed. To insist that matter has universal properties is merely to disguise the real issue – What gives matter its universal properties amidst all of the change?
4. OMNISCIENT/TRUTHFUL: If the moral absolute isn’t completely truthful and accurate, then there’s no reason to follow it. I might as well simply follow my own inclinations. Also. if my wisdom is greater than that of God, then there is no reason to follow God. Clearly, moral truths cannot adhere to unintelligent objects. Further, we can’t derive moral absolutes (what ought to be) from what is (the facts of the physical world).
5. OMNIPOTENT: We can’t violate moral laws without consequence. Call it the “law of Karma” or “you reap what you sow,” without built-in consequences, there is not adequate reason to follow moral absolutes, especially when they interfere with our immediate welfare.
6. BEAUTY/ELEGANCE: Following moral laws is pleasing. If there isn’t a beauty in doing the laws, then I won’t be drawn to do them. As we grow closer to God and begin to see things as He does, we experience a delight, an aesthetic beauty in following His absolutes (Psalm 1).
7. IMMANENT/PERSONAL: If the laws are impersonal or are no more than the law of gravity, there is no reason that we shouldn’t find a way around them. Perhaps there are other impersonal laws by which we can skirt around the dictates of gravity. If there is nothing wrong about flying in a plane or inventing an anti-gravity device – and there isn’t – perhaps there are also circumstances by which we can bypass the moral absolutes that forbid torturing babies? If the laws aren’t personal, then there’s no reason to not violate them. Morality therefore must be ultimately personal.
All of these properties are necessary pre-conditions for moral absolutes. If they are simply properties of physical objects, there is nothing to stop us from throwing them into the fire as we would a well-seasoned log. Instead, it’s interesting to note that the very characteristics that are necessary in order to have moral absolutes are the same characteristics that are inherent in our God. Perhaps there are inseparable!