Reflections on the Argument From Morality

imagesIn my last post, I reflected on the significance of truths which are unchanging – timeless truths, they’re sometimes called. I concluded that only a “timeless” eternal mind was a sufficient explanation to make sense of the fact that some concepts don’t ever change, regardless of the otherwise transitory nature of both mind and matter. 

One such truth involved “morality.” Torturing children for fun is always wrong, i.e. objectively evil, I contended. It’s not just something that society frowns upon, but something that will always be wrong regardless of time, place or culture. In using this example, I moved from one proof of the existence of God – the existence of timeless truths – to another, slightly different but related proof – the existence of morality. While moral truths are indeed one type of truth that I contend remain timeless, limiting my examples to, for example, mathematical truths, may have made my post clearer. 

Indeed, one reader took up the issue created by my merging of the proofs like this: 

I don’t see why my (and practically everyone else’s except for psychopaths’) objection to torturing children for fun is any worse than yours, when the only difference is that you claim yours is god given and thus “objective”. You just have a couple more unfalsifiable claims attached to your objection, and my objection works just as well to stop me from torturing children for fun as yours does. So what do you gain, and what do the children gain, from your “objectivity”?

This challenge brings into focus the real question. The question I sought to answer was, do timeless truths help prove the necessity of a creator God? Does the universe as we perceive make more sense with a Creator or without one? The challenger’s question is, instead, what benefit does your worldview give when my worldview can reach the very same answer?– viz. torturing children for fun is wrong.

A slight detour is necessary here: there are two kinds of societal obligations that are placed upon citizens. In the law, they’re referred to generally as things that are “malum in se” and things that are “malum prohibitum.” The former relate to things that are intrinsically wrong, actions such as murder and rape. They are wrong – indeed bad or evil – in themselves. Other things are wrong because they violate a social convention or rule; they are prohibited. It might be something like parking in a red zone or driving on the left side of the street. Included in this latter category, though not necessarily reduced to law, are other social conventions. It’s rude to talk with food in your mouth. You can wear a bikini to the beach but not to the PTA meeting. You can spank your child with your hand but not a belt. These rules reflect the consensus of a community and are subject to change. Bikinis weren’t permitted on beaches in the 1920’s but spanking a child with a belt was.

The challenger seems comfortable with the notion that all moral claims can be pushed into the social convention category. As he says, his objection to child torture is just as good even though he doesn’t claim it is “objective,” like mine. While he doesn’t say where his objection comes from, he appears to think it’s self-evident.

If it is self-evident (and I agree that it is), something very odd is at play. I’m sure that my challenger would agree that many social conventions can change without much impact on a culture. But if torturing children for fun beliefs changed – or if any of the malum in se kinds of things became popular – there would be grave cause of concern. Nazi Germany makes the point. When murder of a no longer protected class of human beings becomes a favored social norm instead of an instance of genocide, the world – and all of its inhabitants – suffers and is indeed diminished.

Where, then, does this lead? The challenger is right that he does not need to point to the Bible to know that torturing children is wrong. But the deeper question is, where does notion of things which are intrinsically evil come from? How is it that we know such things? How do we draw that line?

The proof from the existence of objective moral truths plays on these arguments. The question – is there a God? – must necessarily be answered in the affirmative when one considers this argument. Why?

Premise one of the argument goes like this: if God does not exist, as the skeptic insists, there can be no objective moral rules. As the above hopefully demonstrates, there may be social conventions and general consensus, and these may be backed  by the force of law. But without an ultimate rule-giver who is apart from and above these societies, they remain no different in kind than the rules about manners or modesty. They are mere social conventions, subject to the whims and vagaries of public opinion.

But, we all intrinsically know that some moral rules are more than just conventions. Yes, they may embody a consensus of the public anyway, but that’s not really the point. If I suddenly found myself in a society which practiced baby torture or murder, I would persist in my belief that these things are not simply to be frowned upon, but are in fact objectively wrong, objectively evil. And I would remain confident in the rightness of my cause if I took action against them.

The challenger refuses to engage the right question. If he did, he would see that the conclusion that logical minds draw from these two premises is obvious: objective moral laws do exist, therefore it follows that a moral law-giver must also exist.  

There are very good reasons indeed to believe that God is the source of the moral order that we know is there. 

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. zilch says:

    So al- is slavery objectively wrong?

    • Jordan says:

      Define slavery. (The word slavery is never used in the KJV, slave only once and that being in italics). Some definitions are certainly wrong, as is shown by God judging nations that practice “slavery” as in Genesis 15:13-14 and Acts 7:6-7. Yet servant/master relationships are never condemned generally in scripture, were used of God as judgment of the wickedness of nations as a merciful alternative to wiping them out, were actually chosen by certain persons, were regulated by God when allowed to prevent abuse, and picture in many ways our relationship with God (Moses chosen title was frequently “the servant”). We must also remember that not all directions God gave were within his perfect plan. Divorce, Christ mentions, was allowed for the hardness of man’s heart. In the Pentateuch, we find God’s first set of instructions for man, for the purpose of a schoolmaster to lead them toward truth and provide a basic understanding of morality. Christ gives a summation of morality, half of which I think you’ll agree on, in Matthew 22:36-40. Thus if a servant/master relationship fits within this, and doesn’t violate another Biblical command (perhaps employer/employee?), it is not objectively wrong. Pardon the brevity and incompleteness of the response, but as it is a red herring issue, I hope it is sufficient enough to redirect our focus. Now how about “engaging the right question” as Al asks for, and addressing the topic of the article? =)

  2. al says:

    If by “slavery” you mean one person “owning” another, It is objectively wrong. If you mean the term in more of the OT context – with overtones of indentured servitude – I would need a better picture of the context before I could form a conclusion.

    • Jordan says:

      Forgive me for playing devil’s advocate here Al (I hate the term but don’t know what else to call it. Maybe I’ll just go with iron sharpening iron), but let me bring a passage into the discussion that forces the Christian to fully examine his position, be fully persuaded in his mind, and always ready to give an answer as we are called to. The passage is Leviticus 25:44-46.
      I can almost guarantee you that Zilch (correct me if I’m wrong Zilch) had this and a couple other passages in mind when he asked you about slavery in his response. I can also almost guarantee he was fishing for an answer that didn’t deal with these passages so that he could bring them to light himself and make it appear that we Christians are unaware of their existence. Why would I wager thus? Because I’ve heard it all before. It’s nothing new. This is a very common objection of the atheist and it deserves a very in-depth, clear, concise answer. Unfortunately I rarely find a studied out answer on other sites (this site has a pretty good one, although I’d like to add/subtract, highlight/diminish a little here or there). This discussion really doesn’t even belong under this article, but rather under this (http://pleaseconvinceme.com/2012/what-god-says-about-slavery/) one. Unfortunately, it is old enough that it doesn’t allow comments. I’d like to hear both of your takes on this passage, Al and Zilch. Also Zilch, I’d like to hear your overall take on the article (which is excellent btw Al; I don’t thank you all enough for what you do!): I’d like to hear your content analysis as far as what you agree or disagree with and why since so far, all our comments on this article have been about a detour (although arguably relevant) from the issue at hand.

      Thanks all
      Signing off from icy roads in Colorado (spun my car and ended in the ditch in fact recently!)

  3. zilch says:

    Jordan- thanks for supporting me here. Most Christians smooth over the difference in the Bible between the Hebrew slaves, who, as is pointed out in the post you link to, were to be treated more like manumitted servants, and the pagan chattel slaves, who could be freely bought and sold, and whose children were also the master’s possessions.

    What’s missing from this well-written post, at least for me, are two things. Lots of verses are quoted that show how slaves were to be treated fairly and humanely, and I don’t doubt that these rules were often a genuine improvement for the slaves. For instance, Exodus 21:20 was quoted:

    20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result,

    So far so good, right? but somehow the next verse was not quoted:

    21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

    Doesn’t quite sound so good to us post-Enlightenment types, does it? That’s what I call cherry-picking.

    My second problem with this post: there is no mention whatsoever why Christians should not hold slaves today, as long as it’s done according to the rules laid down in Scripture. On a plain reading of the Bible, and a plain view of history, I would say the only honest answer a Christian can give is that we should not hold slaves, not because of anything the Bible says, but because it’s inhumane.

    And I hope that satisfies your desire that I answer al’s original question about “timeless” morality. Morality is not “timeless”- it has a history, from bacterium to chimp to couch potato, and as admirable as much of the morality in the Bible was for the ancient world, and as admirable as much of it still is (it’s hard to improve upon the Golden Rule), in some areas most of us have evolved further, and slavery is one of those areas. Treating women as equals is another.

    I’m all for “subjective” morality over “objective” morality as long as it leads to these obvious improvements. What about you?

  4. Al says:

    I would agree with you that many skeptics and atheists bring these passages to bear hoping that the Christian whom they are discussing this with will be caught unaware. I’ll try to address this in a bit more depth in my next post, but the short answer has to do with assumptions people bring to the Bible. They want to pick it up, flip open to the right page, and read the “answer.” Like some type of modern owner’s manual, they want to know specifically what they need to do to change the headlight or if the service engine light comes on. Since the Bible tells a story that requires much thought, thorough reading and discussion, periods of reflection, efforts to reconcile paradoxes and unravel parables, it doesn’t really lend itself to quick answers. And in a “soundbite” cultue such as this, the believer will end up souding defensive. Put in its proper context, those passages deal with improving living conditions for people living in a fallen and sinful world. God seeks not simply to change behavior – he could force that, after all – but to change the hearts of free-will beings – something he can’t force.
    Jesus’ message completes the law and sums it up – there is no way consistent with Jesus’ teaching that anyone could think “owning” another person is actually an okay thing to do.

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