God and objective morality revisited

Elizabeth asked:

Is God necessary for objective morality? Is He sufficient?

Answer by Julian Plumley

I can see three places we could look for ‘objective morality’. We could give it to ourselves, we could derive it from nature, or we could get it from God.

The problem with giving morality to ourselves is that it is hard to see how it could be objective. There are some admirable moral schemes that have been drawn up by people, without reference to God. There is much in Marcus Aurelius’ or Confucius’ morality that most of us would sign up for. But how can I decide between them? How can I say they are better than Nazi morality without referring to some prior standard – but whose should that be? If morality is given by (a) man, then we will be moral relativists.

To escape this, many have tried to naturalise morality. The laws of physics are the paradigm case; they are objective. While we sometimes argue about what they are, we all agree they must apply to all of us (all the time and everywhere), and there are agreed procedures for testing what they are.

But if we look at nature, we do not find the moral law. We find the law of the jungle – natural selection – perhaps the opposite of morality. A more sophisticated view might explain morality as a product of a social evolution: societies with a moral law survive better than those without. Now it’s not clear to me whether this is in fact true. But the greater problem is that physical law is obligatory while moral law is voluntary. This means you cannot extract a society’s moral laws from observing its behaviour (because we don’t all behave morally). So morality is not objective. A moral society behaving in a Machiavellian way will get the same results as an amoral society behaving in a Machiavellian way.

When we look to God for objective morality, we are subject to some obvious criticisms: ‘Who gave God morality?’ and ‘Why trust that God has it right?’ Even if we concede that God is a lot wiser than we are, these questions don’t really go away. But I think this way of looking at the situation is incomplete.

Morality is not (only) a list of rules handed to us. It is a prescription for how we should live in order to be happy and to fulfill our purpose. If you buy a Toyota and look at the owner’s manual, you do not ask: ‘Who gave Toyota authority to tell me how to run my car?’ Of course they have authority, they designed it. In a similar way, God designed us and knows what is best for us. If true, this is an objective fact.

So my answer is…

Necessary: Yes. I can see how God is required for objective morality and I cannot see how the alternatives can make morality objective.

Sufficient: No. If you think that God is the source of objective morality, you are committed to quite a lot more than the existence of God. In particular, you have to recognise that you are a creature – something created by God – and He is not. That puts Him into a special relationship of authority over you and helps justify His moral law.

p.s. The car analogy is from C.S. Lewis and a some of my other points were also originally made by him.


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