Most atheists and agnostics believe in moral relativism: Morality is created or invented relative to our desires, upbringing, feelings, and the dictates of our society. And because it is created, rather than discovered (existing objectively apart from ourselves), it changes as we and our society change. This means that torturing babies might be “wrong” for one society but not for another.
However, some atheists and agnostics are objective moral realists. They believe in an unchanging objective set of moral laws, which exist apart from ourselves and are therefore discovered rather than created. Consequently, they believe that torturing babies is wrong no matter what time or in what culture you might live.
As a Christian, I also believe that there are immutable and universal objective moral laws. Therefore, I applaud others who believe in moral laws and regard them as real and immutable as the law of gravity. However, I must point out the problems in believing in moral law without a moral law-Giver.
The atheist cannot adequately account for such laws in his exclusively materialistic worldview. While the atheist might insist that the moral laws are merely a part of the material universe, this seems unlikely:
MATERIALS ARE MOLECULES-IN-MOTION. Meanwhile, moral law, as are the physical laws, is immutable.
MATERIAL REALITY DIFFERS GREATLY FROM PLACE-TO-PLACE. The Goby Desert is greatly different from the bottom of the Indian Ocean or Mars. Moral absolutes could not be objective or absolute if they differed in Alaska and the Congo. So too, the law of gravity! What then would explain the fact that moral law is universal? Consequently, the moral laws must rest upon something that transcends this varied material universe.
MATERIAL REALITY CANNOT EXPLAIN OR ACCOUNT FOR OUR ELEGANT AND THEREFORE KNOWABLE LAWS OF PHYSICS AND MORALITY. Even the chemical table exhibits profound elegance and design. What can explain such elegance in the material world apart from an intelligent Designer? Besides, a changing material world cannot begin to explain the existence of unchanging laws.
There is also elegance in the operation of the moral laws. Following the moral laws bring harmony, order, and peace. We do wrong, and we feel guilty. We confess our sin (and perhaps make necessary reparations), and we feel better. Relationships are restored. Or instead, we attempt to justify ourselves and must harden our conscience accordingly, as we obsessively wage an inner war to prove ourselves right and, in the process, weaken relationships.
MORAL LAW ALSO MUST BE AUTHORITATIVE. It must carry the authority to tell us that we have done either wrongly and to require a price for wrongdoing. It communicates through the compelling feelings of guilt and shame. Consequently, we are coerced to make excuses and justify ourselves. However, there is nothing in the merely physical world that can communicate our guilt with any authority.
For one thing, the physical world reveals what is, not what ought to be (morality). My computer might flash a screen at me reading, “You have not treated me properly.” However, these words carry no authority. Although it might shut itself down if I didn’t follow the proper procedures, it cannot censure me morally. I can simply have it repaired without any damage to my conscience.
Besides, what is impersonal (the physical world) cannot be morally offended like what is personal. If the physical universe is the source of moral law, I cannot offend it by yelling at it. I can curse at my computer without breaking a moral law. However, if I scream at my wife or my subordinate, this is entirely a different matter.
Buddhists and Hindus also believe in a moral law – karma. However, without a law-Giver, how can karma be justly administered? Without Intelligence, how is karmic justice to be administered in light of the many moral nuances that must be considered?
Besides, we can defy physical laws like gravity, without consequence, by flying on a plane. However, we cannot take a pill to cleanse a guilty conscience, not for long, at least. Morality cannot be successfully side-stepped.
Moral problems must be addressed with moral answers. However, a material world can offer no explanation or remedy (just palliatives) for moral problems. We can take an antibiotic to cure giardia, but there does not exist an antibiotic for guilt.
In his essay “Fact and Value,” Leonard Peikoff argued that there are objective moral principles or laws embedded in the physical reality – the “is” - of this cosmos:
• As Ayn Rand states the point in “The Objectivist Ethics”: “Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every ‘is‘ implies an ‘ought.’” (http://www.peikoff.com/essays_and_articles/fact-and-value/)
But how it is that “every ‘is‘ implies an ‘ought?’” A car can place no demand on us that it “ought” to be driven. Nor can an apple demand that it “ought” to be eaten. Instead, it seems that the “is” and the “ought” occupy separate worlds.
Ordinarily, they do, but Peikoff unites them by quietly introducing his own “ought” to connect the non-moral “is” to the “ought”:
• Every fact of reality which we discover has, directly or indirectly, an implication for man’s self-preservation and thus for his proper course of action. In relation to the goal of staying alive, the fact demands specific kinds of actions and prohibits others; i.e., it entails a definite set of evaluations. For instance, sunlight is a fact of metaphysical reality; but once its effects are discovered by man and integrated to his goals, a long series of evaluations follows: the sun is a good thing.
“The fact demands specific kinds of actions and prohibits others” only because Peikoff’s
“ought” requires the facts to do so. The facts are to serve his “ought” – “man’s self-preservation.” Consequently, “the sun is a good thing.” Why? Because it serves our “ought” of “self-preservation!”
But from where did this “ought” of “self-preservation” come? Not from the facts! The facts of existence are silent about human priority or exceptionalism. They say nothing of a human value or importance that exceeds the value of termites, mosquitos, bacteria, or hogs. (The concept of value requires us to question – “Valuable to whom?” Certainly to humans, but this is just a subjective assessment.) Instead, in order to salvage “The Objectivist Ethics,” Peikoff was forced to inject his own subjective value of “man’s self-preservation.” (If the hog could speak, he’d speak of “hogs’ preservation.) However, this makes his entire moral system subjective. All of the facts are subjectively coerced into serving his own value of “man’s self-preservation.”
Yet, I appreciate Peikoff’s attempt at trying to formulate an objective system of morality. However, moral law requires a moral law-Giver. There is only one objective basis for morality, the “ought” – the One immutable, omniscient, and universal God, who demands the very morality He has written on our conscience.
A world without God is a world where anything goes, and the worst deeds are met with silence. The humanist Max Hocutt had aptly written:
· “To me [the non-existence of God] means that there is no absolute morality, that moralities are sets of social conventions devised by humans to satisfy their needs…If there were a morality written up in the sky somewhere but no God to enforce it, I see no good reason why anyone should pay it any heed.” (David Noebel, Understanding the Times)