Continuing with my series on presuppositions that lead to credulity or incredulity, I ask the question is morality objective and absolute? Your answer to this question will greatly influence your perspective on the existence of God.
A rock bottom foundational assumption of the theist is that morality must have an objective source. To believe otherwise is to cast oneself into the chaos of moral relativity. C. S. Lewis captures this argument in Mere Christianity. In fact, I suspect that most modern Christians have absorbed this way of thinking from C. S. Lewis if not directly, by osmosis.
Conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver. –C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis argues that because we feel like there is an objective moral ruler that we measure ourselves from it must exist and its source must be God. Now, I will grant, this perspective is understandable. Humans do feel a sense of right and wrong. The question is what is the source of that sense?
The assumption of an objective morality is so foundational that very few believers ever consider to question it. The threat of moral relativism is the specter that keeps them from evaluating its validity. Many arguments between believers and atheists spin round and round in circles because of not understanding each other’s presuppositions on this point alone.
This argument for God based on conscience that C. S. Lewis uses is called the argument from morality. It is important to understand that the assertion of moral order is taken as a given a prori.
Argument[s] from moral order are based on the asserted need for moral order to exist in the universe. — Wikipedia
The argument from objective moral truths for the existence of God goes like this
- If morality is objective and absolute, God must exist.
- Morality is objective and absolute.
- Therefore, God must exist (source: Wikipedia)
Now here is the thing, the second assertion is completely taken for granted. Nothing objective in nature suggests that morality is an absolute. Although differing cultures agree on some basic broad strokes of morality like “murder is bad,” they do not agree on many particulars like the treatment of women, the justification for war, etc.
What is the source of morality?
Back to my statement earlier that humans do feel a sense of right and wrong. How can this be explained without a deity? As in many things believers question atheists about evolution is the answer. Humans have evolved to have a moral conscience. We instinctively know some moral truths, cooperation over antagonism, do not mate with a sibling, murder is bad. This evolved conscience helped the human race survive against its competitors.
Culture then adds on top of these innate moral instincts. Individual cultures value certain morals above others. Some cultures value strength and honor while others value service and humility.
I argue that morality progresses. We as a the human race or even an individual culture recognize past mistakes and make improvements. In short morality itself evolves. The greatest case in point, is slavery. Who today in 2016 would make the argument that slavery is acceptable let alone based on inherent differences in the “humanness” of the races? We recognized this terrible mistake, realized that all humans have inherent worth and abolished slavery to the extent that now anyone who communicates racist attitudes is considered backward and ignorant not to mention morally repugnant.
An evolutionary morality married with progressive cultural mores explains both the similarities and differences in morality between cultures today. In fact, it explains this much better than an objective absolute morality. For if morality is objective how does one explain the change over time?
Christian morality has not remained static through history. The above example of slavery is again my prime argument. I assure you if you are a modern day Christian woman you would not want to be placed in a time machine and travel back to the first century. It would be unpleasant for you. Nor would a Christian of color wish to live in almost any time in history prior to today. Notice also the dramatic change in moral tone from the Old to the New testaments. Morality is fluid and influenced by the surrounding culture whether one acknowledges this or not.
This is why two ethical questions of our time are of great importance: the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter movement. I believe the church is on the wrong side of history on these issues. Why? Because morality progresses. We recognized our mistakes like marginalizing minority groups and we improve. Looking backwards to a 2000 year old document set in the context of first century culture and morality will not help us navigate these modern ethical questions.
On the fear of relativism, morality is relative it always has been. * We must accept that. Even within a particular faith group their are differences of opinion on morality. The very fact that we have different moral intuitions, even among similar faith groups is evidence for the non-existence of an objective moral truth.
Does this mean that we cannot argue between cultures over progress? No. We very much can and should push for progress on the ethical issues of our day. The world is shrinking by the day. We will have to cooperate and we are likely to disagree. But having the debate in the first place is already progress.
Can one be good without God?
Finally, the root of the believer’s discomfort on these issues comes from the assumption that one cannot be good without God. The believer is taught that human beings though made in the image of God are fundamentally broken by sin and incapable of good on their own.
To atheist ears the idea that Christians are moral only because God told them to be is an indictment. If the only thing holding the believer back from a murderous rampage is their belief in a non-corporeal judge, is this goodness?
I have been a Christian. I have held some of the above believer’s opinions. I then met a number of atheists who love their families, contribute to charities and give back to their communities, in short, very good people. I am now one of them. And though, I am still uncomfortable calling myself a good person due to the prior indoctrination, my morality has remained virtually the same. Just a lot less guilt.
* Update: I am entirely too flippant in this paragraph. This post is an argument against the theistic argument that morality is impossible without a god, specifically premise 1 above. It is not a complete theory of natural morality. The point I was attempting to make is that societies’ morality progresses and likely at different rates relative to one another.
I actually do think there are some objective moral truths. Not in the absolute sense but in the sense that humanity as a whole moves towards consensus like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the moral arc of history bending toward justice.” The simplest example is “The unnecessary suffering of sentient beings should be avoided.” I will be the first to admit I have an incomplete theory of natural morality. It is a work in progress for me. As a skeptic I suspect that all moral theories are incomplete.
The thrust of the post is to say that the source of morality is us, human beings, and not a theistic god. We will get it wrong at times but through the process of error correction morality will progress.
8 thoughts on “Is morality objective and absolute?”
When people try to disparage moral relativism, I ask them to demonstrate that their objective morality is any better than the other guys objective morality, typically Christianity vs Islam. Naturally they can’t demonstrate it without using the same tools I would use to determine morality for my self.
A proposition is considered objectively true (or to have objective truth) when truth conditions are met and are “bias-free”. It’s impossible for a human to think of something in a completely bias free way. It’s not how cognition and emotion work. Christians like to pretend that if they call something objective in the sense of being based on facts rather than feelings or opinions that somehow that imbues it with an independent divine agency that exists outside space and time, and that morality is “grounded” in it. They never get around to explaining the mechanism and evidence for that position beyond hand waving and repeating “god” over and over. So, even if they meet the bias free burden, I have yet to see any apologist argument meet both criteria- the truth conditions are never satisfied.
So much for “Objective Morality”.
Agreed. There is a fair amount of question begging in Christian apologetics. The “proof” of an argument is not if it persuades those who agree with you, but rather if it persuades those who disagree. Christians seem incapable of understanding why atheists do not accept their “proofs.”
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I was taken with the idea (which I’ve noticed, as well) of progressive morality, as we age as a species and evolve. If you take the example of a small child slowly maturing, you see the process. As a baby, the world revolves around his fists, his hunger, his need. take take. Over time and with a certain amount of encouragement, most babies grow into a larger world in which they are no longer a centerpiece but a viable bit of it.
Humanity in general does exactly the same thing. We no longer approve war as a manly thing to do, although there are still wars. 100 years ago it was considered a rite of passage for young men, to train them up. I think the Vietnam war was the first actively opposed war in history, and entire families were split apart because a son refused to serve. And as you point out, slavery, at least in most places now, is recognized as immoral. As are poorhouses, torture, and mutilation. We no longer turn our faces away when someone is abused, or children are mistreated. I think we’re growing up. Slowly, but it’s getting there.
In this century would we allow a children’s crusade? Would we tolerate selling humans into slavery? Putting children in a workhouse to pay off a family’s debts?
Morality–and humanity–evolves. It’s visible and real.
As to Christian proofs, I think we reject them because they come across as souped up excuses, not to prove to us that God is real, but to prove that they believe it. Even, perhaps, to themselves. That fine note of panic sometimes shows through…don’t forget, we are the crack in their belief system, the proof that it is actually possible to NOT believe.
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I really like the analogy of a child growing up. I may steal that 😉 And thank you for a number of excellent examples of progressive morality. It really is the process of error correction that leads us to progress morality. Without the ability to reject previously accepted behavior (some approved of by ancient texts) we cannot move forward to a more inclusive, less violent, better humanity.
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Steal away, im flattered.
I’ve always seen infants as a kind of yardstick for humanity, they do mirror our progress. One of the phases I think we’re in right now is that thing that kids often go through, a prepubescent phase, where they want to give all their toys to the poor kids in the orphanage, or to the little boy down the street…save the world, the ten year old girl says, let’s End World Hunger. Let’s all go out and adopt puppies, kittens, and bring the homeless home for lunch…😉
And you simply cannot progress as a species if you cling to that old rock of religion. It does weigh one down.
“I argue that morality progresses. We as a the human race or even an individual culture recognize past mistakes and make improvements. In short morality itself evolves. The greatest case in point, is slavery. Who today in 2016 would make the argument that slavery is acceptable let alone based on inherent differences in the “humanness” of the races? We recognized this terrible mistake, realized that all humans have inherent worth and abolished slavery to the extent that now anyone who communicates racist attitudes is considered backward and ignorant not to mention morally repugnant.”
Notice you seem to suggest that it would be a mistake to believe slavery is ok. By that do you mean that it would no longer be a mistake if everyone alive thought it was ok? Then suddenly it would be acceptable?
The notion of progress assumes there is objective moral truth.
Relativism cuts against many of our basic ideas of how we are reasonable or rational: