Sunday, March 8, 2015

Meaning, Virtue, Altruism, and the Existence of God


We want to live meaningful lives, filled with significance and purpose. We sense that there is something correct and fulfilling about living a life of virtue and other-centeredness. However, I don’t think that we can do so coherently without God. In fact, this quest points to the existence of God. Here’s how:

  1. Meaning exists.
  2. Meaning cannot exist without God.
  3. God must exist.

1. Meaning exists. Although we cannot directly see it with our eyes, but we can observe the way it affects us and others. In this sense, it is like a law of science. We cannot observe gravity, but we can observe the way it impacts us. We can even produce formulas describing the predictable effects of gravity.

Although we cannot produce formulas – at least, none have been put forth at this point – we can observe a law of meaning, virtue, or altruism. When we live virtuously, it impacts us in somewhat predictable ways:

a)    We make others feel good.
b)    We feel good about ourselves - A sense of satisfaction, completeness, rightness.
c)     When we hurt others, we experience internal conflict. We try to rationalize our bad behavior or simply suppress it.
d)    When we apologize, we feel that we did the right thing, even if the other person doesn’t receive our apology. When they do, we experience peace or reconciliation.

Besides, if an objective meaning is to be denied, then we’d also have to conclude that there is nothing objectively the matter with rape, kidnapping, murder, or torturing babies. However, we find such a conclusion to be repugnant.

2. Meaning cannot exist without God. Most agree that we cannot create a law of meaning in the same way that we cannot create a law of gravity or any other law of science. We just don’t have that power. If we did, there would be a billion competing humanly-created laws and utter chaos.

However, many stoics will say that this is unnecessary, since we can create our own meaning. We can simply decide to visit shut-ins and bring food. While, I applaud people who devote themselves to the virtuous, altruistic life, I don’t think that they can coherently or rationally live this way. Perhaps this next question will illustrate the problem:

Why should we live virtuously?” Most appeal to a pragmatic rationale - that it brings benefits to live virtuously:

  • When we live other-centeredly, we bring maximum benefit to ourselves and to others. 
While I agree with this, this cannot be the center-piece of our thinking. Here’s why:

a)    Without God, we cannot consistently use objective value-laden terms like “benefit,”  “right,” “wrong,” “just” or “unjust.” This is to acknowledge a higher, universal moral law – the very thing that they deny. Is the removal of “pain” beneficial? Why? Perhaps we need pain? To answer this question, we have to appeal to unchanging objective principles that define human thriving. Instead, those who reject objective universal moral principles are reduced to saying, “Well, this feels right or beneficial to me,” or “The majority of people feel this way, at least for now.”

b)    However, if there is no higher law, why then should we even be concerned about what the majority thinks! There is no objective principle to invest the majority with any intrinsic significance.

c)     Meaning cannot be retained if we acknowledge that it is something that we created and can be changed at will. It carries no normative authority over our lives. If virtue is merely our own creation, it cannot inspire us to live sacrificially. It is like mentally creating for ourselves a wife and children and adoring them in our imagination. Such adoration is delusional.

d)    Pragmatism – the cost/benefit analysis – does not always lead to virtue. Instead, it often leads inhumane behavior. At best, we can say that virtue produces benefits most of the time. Is it pragmatic and rational to rescue Jews from the Nazis if you risk the death of your entire family by doing so? Of course not!

Therefore, a purely pragmatic justification for virtue isn’t adequate or even rational. Perhaps even more seriously, there is incoherence at the very base of a pragmatic justification for the virtuous life. By its very nature and at its core, pragmatism is selfish. It considers the personal benefits. However, virtue is supposed to be unselfish and other-centered! How then can we practice other-centeredness when we are practicing virtue for our own motives!

If there is no higher moral truth, our feelings become supreme. They oppress us and force us into bondage. With what can we resist them, if there is no transcendent moral truths by which to trump them? How can pragmatic considerations overrule them if fulfilling our feelings is of supreme benefit?

The stoic will resist this logic, claiming that their feelings are not supreme but, instead, their principles. However, if their principles are subjectively and pragmatically derived, then they fail the consistency test, since their principles are derived from their feelings. This puts their feelings at the helm of their ship.

Once the stoic attempts to justify virtue on the need to be “other-centered,” we have to ask:

  • Why should we live other-centeredly? You deny the existence of objective moral law. If so, why even bother with others? Instead, just be concerned about what you are really all about – your feelings, being #1 and those who feed #1.
If the stoic rejects objective moral principles, he must resort to pragmatism – the cost/ benefit analysis – to bridge the huge gulf to the land of altruism.

However, when altruism is separated from objective moral law and the law-Giver, absurdities pop up. For one thing, those who practice a pragmatic virtue must borrow Christian principles that do not coincide with pragmatic thinking. Today’s stoic believes in equality and doing right to all people. However, they lack a sufficient basis for their concept of equality. After all, some humans make positive contributions to society; some make negative. Some are educated; some are not. Some build relationships; others tear them down. From where then does this objective concept of equality come? From the Bible!

Other absurdities arise from this disconnect between virtue and objective values. The psychotherapist affirms the need for unconditional positive regard (UPR) – the necessity of regarding their clients positively as a foundation for nurturing therapeutic relationship. However, without transcendent moral law, there is no adequate rational basis to always regard all one’s clients in a positive light. Some clients might even provoke a sense of disgust.

Therefore, the secular therapist must justify UPR in terms of the benefits to both client and therapist. However, having rejected moral law, the therapist cannot be transparent about his thoughts and feelings. Instead, he must put on a face – the very thing that will eventually undermine relationships. In contrast, the Christian can coherently express her high regard for the client, even while being honest about her negative feelings. However, if our negative feelings are all that we have, then we cannot be honest. Let me illustrate the difference:

a)    “I don’t like you, but you are capable of doing better,” or
b)    “I don’t like you, but you have inestimable worth as God’s creation, and so my feelings are only secondary.”

The first claims that worth is performance based. Therefore, if the client does not produce, he has no worth. And if he does produce, his product may not measure up to social standards. The second claims that, because of God, worth is intrinsic to the person and, therefore, transcends whatever the therapist might feel about the client. Worth comes from God and not human opinions. Consequently, the Christian therapist must acknowledge that her feelings are no more than a momentary reaction in the face of the Transcendent.

Attempts to pragmatically justify the virtuous life are doomed to failure. Instead, we have to be convinced about the intrinsic correctness of virtue and it’s inseparable connection to Deity.

3. God must exist. If we believe that meaning exists, and that it cannot exist without God, then God must exist!

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