Arguments for the Existence of God
by Metacrock - edited by JMT
Used with Permission
XXII. The Moral Argument
A. Universal Moral Law.
The Apostle Paul tells us that there is a universal moral law written upon the human heart. We can see evidence of this universal law throughout the world. Now social science is quick to tell us that moral codes of all cultures differ throughout the world; some are so drastically different as to allow for multiple marriages, in some cultures gambling and even cheating each other are expected, and in a few cultures there doesn't seem to be any notion of right and wrong. But we shouldn't expect that all the moral codes of the world would be uniform just because there is a moral law. The evidence of a universal law is not seen in structured belief systems but in the humanity of humans. People in all cultures have concepts of right and wrong, even they may attach different kinds of significance to them. There are a few cultures that are actually pathological examples, but in the main most people are capable of being good, exhibit a basic human compassion, and feel moral outrage at cruelty and injustice.
It is this sense of moral outrage and the ability to empathize and to feel compassion that marks the moral law best of all. In Nicaragua in the 1980s members of the contra army fighting the Sandinistas conducted a campaign of terror to prevent the people from supporting the revolutionary government. To enforce a sense of Terror they cut off the heads of little girls and put them on poles for all to see (see Noam Chomsky Turning The Tide...Chomsky's example comes from United Nations Human Rights Report in 1984). There is something about this act, regardless of our political affiliations which fills us with anger and revulsion; we want to say it is evil. Even those who believe that we must move beyond good and evil are hard pressed not to admit this sense of outrage and revulsion, yet if they had their way we would not be able to express anything more than a matter of taste about this incident for nothing is truly evil if there is no universal moral law.
Moreover, the nature of the moral universe is such that we are capable of elevating basic moral motions to the level of ethical thinking. We understand by this that we must deliberate about moral conditions and to do that we must have free moral agency, a sense of the meaning of duty and obligation, and a notion of grounding for moral axioms. All of these things are without foundation in the relativist scheme but they are part and parcel of what ethical thinking is about. Before trying to link the universal moral law to the existence of God we must first explore the objections to it.
1) Philological argument.
There are no root words for good and evil universally shared by all cultures, as there are for gender and other things.
Answer: notions of good and evil are metaphysical constructs based upon religious notions. We should not expect cultures that understand God in different ways and have different cognominal and metaphysical schemes of the universe to share the same terms for designation of good and evil when they do not share the same metaphysics. But, this is actually a greater argument for the universal moral law, because despite different metaphysical schemes of the universe there is still an underlying humanity, which was recognized by people in cultures as diverse as Handy in India and even head hunters in Borneo.
2) Genetic Origin of Morality.
This seems like a really overwhelming objection. The notion of "herd instinct" has been around as an explanation for morality for a long time. But, in the 1970s E.O. Wilson invented the theory of sociobiology, which basically said that our genes determine everything in an attempt to mate, and what seems like our own ideas and concerns are all really a ploy my our gene pool to further itself. Morality, in this context is just an attempt to aid the pack. Even self sacrifice is just an attempt to save some part of the gene pool. IN the 1980s sociobiology became known as "naturalistic psychology" and under the lead of Richard Dawkins became an overwhelming force; thousands of websites exist to support sociobiology, and there is no real adequate Christian response. This seems like such an overwhelming flood time of support that there doesn't seem much hope for the moral argument.
Answer: The genetic argument really doesn't defeat the notion of a universal moral law, but it is problematic. The moral law "written on the heart" (Romans 2:7) could well be genetic at its root. Those Christians who have no trouble understanding that God used evolution as a method of developing life can easily imagine that the moral law in encoded into the evolutionary process and is found from the ground up. The problematic part is that it blunts the thrust of the causality argument. Perhaps there is a basic humanity to humans which recognizes moral motions, but how to use that as a proof of God's creation when it could as easily be the product of evolution? More on this at the end of the argument.
a) sociobiology enshrining values of reductionism and consequentialist ethics.
First Things, May 98, 59
The Social Meaning of Modern Biology: From Social Darwinism to Sociobiology. By Howard L. Kaye. With a new epilogue by the author. Transaction. 208 pp. $19.95 paper.
"Sociobiology is a secularized form of natural theology, Kaye explains: an attempt to "translat[e] our lives and history back into the language of nature so that we might once again find a cosmic guide for the problems of living." But the attempt fails, he argues, because in order to derive moral guidance from things like genes, sociobiologists first have to attribute to them various cognitive and moral attributes (e.g., "selfish genes"). In short, the sociobiologist first reads his own moral program into nature and then, unsurprisingly, discovers it from nature.
b) Reductionism of Sociobiology negates ability to discuss ethics.
(from First Things )
"Moreover, Kaye argues, these attempts at moral guidance are logically incoherent, given sociobiology's reduction of human beings to "mechanisms," "programmed" by natural selection. What, then, can it mean to talk about choice and values? Evolutionary psychology avoids some of the cruder reductionism of the older sociobiology. But by attempting to unmask all thought and feelings as genetically programmed survival strategies, Kaye warns, it may still "have a corrosive effect on our moral principles, social order, and even our souls."
c) Sacrificial (moral) genes is confusion of members and sets.
Val Dusek, Science As Culture "Sociobiology Sanitized: the Evolutionary Psychology and Genic Selectionism Debates"
"Despite the new name, the general lessening of totally off-the-wall speculation, far-fetched animal analogies to very distantly related species, and the avoidance of grossly sexist remarks, evolutionary psychologists present the same theories as the sociobiologists. Central to the work of most of them is the genic selection theory, claims that genes, not organisms are selected. It is most well known as selfish gene theory in popularizations by Richard Dawkins. This doctrine, genic selectionism, has been criticized by biologists such as Gould and Lewontin, but many journeyman biologists accept the theory, even attributing the details of the theory to Dawkins himself, when he was only popularizing certain trends in genetics and theories of Hamilton and others.
The debates concerning evolutionary psychology have revived the debate about genic selectionism. Part of the debate concerns whether genes alone are selected, as Dawkins claims, or whether individual organisms and species (and perhaps also groups) are selected as well...."
"This fits with the theory of kin selection, in which and individual can reproduce some of "its" genes by sacrificing itself for a relative which carries a proportion of the altruist's genes. Lewontin has criticized Dawkin's theory by claiming that it confuses classes with individuals. The genes which are reproduced by the relative are not physically identical with the sacrificed individual's genes, but are simply similar, the same kind of gene. Lewontin counters Dawkins claim that an extraterrestrial, to gauge earthly intelligence would ask "Do you understand the theory of natural selection?" with the Platonic question "Do you understand the difference between a class and its members?"--which, according to Lewontin, Dawkins, in his "caricature of Darwinism" flunks. Sober and Lewontin have put the distinction in more philosophical jargon, distinguishing geno-tokens from genotypes." (Sober and Lewontin, 1982, p. 171)
d) Other scientific objections and ethical problems.
"Lewontin, Gould, and some other writers have emphasized against selectionism a number of random and non-selective factors in evolution. These include 1) purely random recombination 2) genetic drift, in which random sampling errors in reproduction change the distribution of genes in a population 3) so-called non-Darwinian evolution, which involves the random mutation of the third letter in some DNA code words, in which two or more words are synonyms which code for the same amino acid, and hence the difference in the third letter makes no difference in the resultant organism, and is not selected for (a significant theory Dennett does not even mention) 4) structural constraints, such as basic body plans, which may become far from optimally adaptive, but which are too difficult to change by piecemeal natural selection without making many other features of the organism maladaptive. 5) geological or astronomical catastrophes such as the asteroid collision causing mass extinctions. 6) species selection, in which differing rates of extinction, and, more importantly, speciation (branching) produce more species in some lineages than in others....."
"There is [in Dennett] a discussion of the naturalistic fallacy in ethics, but no further discussion of scientific reduction. Apparently all that Dennett means by "draining the drama" from the problem is to deny that awful ethical consequences directly follow logically from selfish gene theory. But this ignores the more indirect ideological consequences in terms of cosmologies or models of nature that in turn can have ethical effects. An interesting sidelight of this is that Dennett, like Dawkins holds the Dawkinsian vision of all lower organisms. The are robots, but we, in Dawkins words can rebel against our genes. Surprisingly Dennett, the militant denier of dualism and of non-naturalistic mind, draws as strong a line between humans and other animals as does Descartes."
"What Dennett would have to counter is Lewontin and Sober's argument that when selection coefficients of genes are context-dependent and selection acts on gene complexes, the artificially constructed selection coefficients of genes do not play a causal role. (Sober and Lewontin, 1984). It is true that if one claims that what is selected are not genes but replicators as the later Dawkins does, then whole genomes, incorporating all the contextual effects of genes on each other, might be the object of selection. This would preserve the restriction of selection to the genic level, but it would give up the atomization of modular traits with which evolutionary psychologists work.
On the other hand Dennett, surprisingly, does not dismiss the "selfish gene" image as a "mere metaphor" as do many scientists (somewhat in bad faith) but claims that if corporations can have interests, then so can genes (neglecting that corporations are made up of individuals who have interests but genes are not) (p. 328). Perhaps Dennett holds a view which "dissolves" the issues concerning reductionism in relation to levels of selection, but he nowhere argues for it of even states it clearly."
"Although Dennett chastises B. F. Skinner and E. O. Wilson for assuming that their opponents must be religious mysterians, Dennett himself accuses Steve Gould of all people of having secret religious motivations, based on the fact that Gould often quotes the Bible as literature the way he does Shakespeare. Ironically, the one "Biblical" passage in Gould that Dennett quotes is in fact not from the Bible but from a familiar African American song.
Similarly Dennett grossly misrepresents the anthropologist Jonathan Marks, portraying him as a new Bishop Wilberforce, denying humans ape ancestry. In fact Marks pointed out the worse than shoddy treatment of data by C. G. Sibley and J. E. Ahlquist in their claims concerning hybridization of human and ape DNA. Dennett makes it sound as if Marks criticisms of Sibley and Ahlquist's data was roundly condemned by the scientific community, as evidenced by an apology in the American Scientist. What Dennett neglects to note is that there was a lawsuit threatened against the magazine threatened by one of the criticized authors because Marks review suggested excessive massaging of the data. Despite the quality of Sibley and Ahlquist's earlier raw data on bird classification based DNA, it is generally agreed that their work on human-ape relationships was worthless, and molecular evolution anthropologist Vincent Sarich has suggested that even the published versions of their bird conclusions is valueless, despite the value of the voluminous but unavailable raw data. Because of Sibley's eminence the human molecular evolution community has been unwilling to criticize the work, for fear of harm to the reputation of the field. This is far from the sort of replay of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate in which Dennett and other evolutionary psychologists wish to portray themselves as involved."
"Interestingly several of the leading sociobiologists and popularizers of evolutionary psychology, such as E. O. Wilson, Randy Thornhill, and Robert Wright hale from Alabama. One can speculate that the religious fundamentalist atmosphere of the American Deep South may have led those who defected to Darwin to find in Darwinism a cosmic world-view answering the same questions that the dominant religious view claimed to answer. Robert Wright (1988) is quite explicit about this."
"The notion that human beings have evolved from other animals and are a part of biological nature is tremendously important. It is unfortunate and misleading that the evolutionary psychologists make it appear that a commitment to evolution and to the importance of natural selection necessitates a commitment to pan-selectionism, genic selection and the "selfish gene." We have seen how Wilson and now Dennett attempt to identify their opponents with anti-evolutionism. Even Barbara Ehrenreich dubs her opponents the "New Creationists." The split between selfish gene evolutionary psychology and cultural constructionism in anthropology can only prolong the delay in the development of a genuinely evolutionary view of humanity. "Evolutionary psychology" by preempting the field of evolutionary accounts of human nature and potential helps to prevent a non-reductionist biosocial account of humans.
3) The Inhumanity of humanity.
Many skeptics point out the extreme cases of the holocaust in which normal law abiding citizens, church goers and Christians, did the most horrid things to babies and old people and suffered no pangs of guilt over it. Moreover, we have seen on the evening news in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and other places the most inhumane treatment of helpless victims which surely demonstrates that there is no moral law.
Answer: The explanatory power of the moral argument is demonstrated in this argument. The other side of the moral argument equation is that we are not able to live up to the moral law. There are times when we turn it off, when it can be circumvented. Urges and temptations, ideology, socialization, many things can divert the basic motivations of compassion. If it was simply genetic and the instinctive urge to save the gene pool than why are we so bad at keeping it? While certain extreme examples where the moral law is circumvented do not disprove that there is no moral law (because special circumstances intervened) our anguish (ours not that of those whose consciences were cleared but that of those who look in horror at their deeds) demonstrates, along with our feelings of failure at living up to the mark, that there is a moral law. But it if is genetic why are we unable to live up to the standard that we feel passionately should be met?
C. Explanatory Power argues for God.
How can these moral motions demonstrate that God is the origin of such motions when there are also such strong indications that is genetic? Isn't this merely assuming God as an explanation when none is required?
That we feel such moral motions, both for compassion, and outrage over injustice, is better explained by an appeal to the God hypothesis since it demonstrates the depths of human depravity in man's fallen nature. So much of what we term "evil" is "over the top" and pointless, while the noble aspects of humanity cannot be reduced to mere behaviors. Morality is more than mere behavior, it is also deliberation, moral agency, and the ability to understand constitutive frameworks which embody self and our deepest values. This is so much more than just behavior, an attempt to save the gene pool. That is take is merely enshrining the ideology of consequentialist ethics. See also my take on the Fall of Humanity and what this means on the Gospel page.
Without the notion of God a merely genetic morality reduces to behavioral urges and becomes relative and discardable. Yet the outrage and feelings of compassion remain. These are reduced to unimportant epiphenomena without God. This means that we are actually explaining away the phenomena. God is crucial as an postulate of practical reason; without metaphysical assumptions we cannot derive an ought from an is (Hume). But if we think of this observation in terms of the explanatory power of the God hypothesis that hypothesis becomes more than just a useful fiction. Since God explains morality and human nature better than any other view, in so far as it is honest about human depravity and nobility, we have a strong indication of the validity of the God hypothesis.
1) Regulative principle of practical reason (Kant)
We have this urge to condemn with outrage human atrocities and to extend compassion and justice. As with the Holocaust, we know it is evil; merely saying that it violates our genetic code isn't enough! But without assuming God as a regulative principle the alternative is that it does reduce to mere behavior and the moral outrage is groundless; yet we never lose it. That doesn't prove there is a God, but it at least justifies the notion as a regulative principle.
2) Regulative principle has explanatory power.
Both in explaining why we have these moral urges and yet can't live up to them, and in explaining why we need a regulative principle, why we can't just say it's not right or let it go.
By Metacrock. Used with Permission.
For more articles by the same author, see Doxa.