By Roger Marshall*
“In disagreement with article ‘Morality comes from God’. ” was the title of Mr. Philip A. Stahl’s rebuttal of my earlier letter which appeared in the Barbados Advocate, December 23, 2004.
In his letter Mr. Stahl, who identified himself as still adhering to his long held atheistic beliefs, tried to explain the origin of morality apart from “god belief or adhering to ‘laws’ of a god.”
First I must say that Mr. Stahl is right in one thing he said and that is: “people should be encouraged to think rationally and critically concerning ethics…” but of course ones conclusions will be affected by ones world–view. Mr. Stahl is arguing from an atheistic world–view, I’m arguing from a theistic one. We need to ask ourselves which world–view is best supported by the objective evidence around us.
Postulating that actions are naturally good or bad within themselves without “a god” having to ordain them as so, Mr. Stahl concluded that actions are determined good in as much as they are linked to the protection of one’s own welfare, which is linked to the promotion of the welfare of others – “No god is necessary.”
He used a scenario of saving a child from a burning house as an example of an ethical or “good” thing to do because the time may come when the rescuer may want a similar favour reciprocated on his/her behalf from the others in the society. Whether Mr. Stahl realises it or not, the full import of this line of reasoning means that what appears to be good or ethical behaviour, is really nothing more than a cleaver way by which the human animal seeks to protect its life (or that of its offspring) in the great evolutionary drama of survival of the fittest. It’s not about ultimate truth, as to whether it is really right or wrong to harm one’s fellow man rather it’s about assessing the situation one finds oneself in (the hub of situation ethics). Given another situation, where one’s self – preservation could be assured without any reprisals from the society at large (say, if the child was allowed to perish in the fire) then quite an opposite response to the child in danger may result. History records that for some past cultures, the ethical or “good” thing to do was for parents to sacrifice their children in grizzly ways (by fire or dagger) unto “the gods” without any reprisals from the wider society. In fact such inhumane acts were supposedly carried out on the behalf of the parent’s own welfare and the promotion of the welfare of the others in the society! The modern equivalent to these ancient legal atrocities is the present day abortion industry. In Hitler’s Germany the extermination of the Jews was viewed as a “good” thing to do. As far as Hitler and his society were concerned, this brand of ethics was linked to the protection of the welfare of the Aryan race.
If there is no universal moral governor (i.e. God) who sets a common standard of rules for all mankind to follow, then what gives Mr. Stahl the right to claim that his view of morality is better than any one else’s? He may squirm at the thought of committing acts of violence against or stealing from his fellow man etc. because he does not want the same to be done to him, but others may actually get a pleasurable adrenalin rush from doing such things as they set out to prove who is stronger and more cunning (believing that they have what it takes to be victorious) in the battle of survival of the fittest.
In a further attempt to support his thesis that no god is necessary for the general moral consciousness among men, Mr. Stahl submitted the naturalistic, evolutionary notion that man has derived his “ethical sense and directive” from his animal ancestors. He cited examples of animals that put their lives in danger to protect their young and even their pack, to support his hypothesis. However, what about those animals that kill their offspring? Is such conduct acceptable among humans since it is a natural way of life among our supposed animal relatives? If it is not unethical for animals to behave that way why should it be unethical for humans to do the same (if indeed we’re all just animals)? In fact they are those naturalists who view this behaviour among animals as a rationale for the practice of human infanticide (which would include abortion). Similarly some view what appears to them as homosexual affection among some animals as a rationale for the acceptance and legalising of human homosexual behaviour.
If Mr. Sthal is going to be consistent in his world – view, which excludes God from the picture, then he must factor all these things I’ve mentioned into the equation, as his eclecticism on this issue cannot be rationally defended. When that is done, his opinion of what is “the sane, human and decent thing to do” remains just that: his subjective opinion.
Nevertheless, in spite of the stark (sometimes horrible) differences between the moral practices of different cultures, there is a discernable moral standard common to all men in regard to what is really right or wrong, which (although showing similarities in some instances) many times runs contrary to behaviour we observe in the animal kingdom. Generally everyone concedes that it is really wrong to steal, cheat, lie, and commit adultery or murder etc. Our failure to adhere to this standard may lead us to feel guilt while we may express anger at others who fail to do the same. However, more often than not men choose to ignore, stifle and rationalise away the moral standard as they proceed to do contrary to what it demands. The fundamental question is: where does that standard come from?
C. Stephen Evans offers some good insight on this matter when he said: “this standard, this “law” if you will, is therefore not simply a description about how people behave. It is a prescription about how people should behave, though one they are constantly violating. So morality is not simply a law of nature like the law of gravity. It doesn’t describe how things in nature go on, but how human behaviour ought to go on.”
Again he says: “The moral order does not seem to consist of any such things [i.e., instincts and feelings]. It is not an instinct, because it is itself the standard by which we judge our instincts to be good or bad…” (C. Stephen Evans, Quest for Faith, pp.45, 47, cited in Faith and Reason by Ronald H. Nash, pp. 159, 160; emphasis mine). In other words the moral order/law is objectively external to our own subjective experiences and peculiar set of circumstances.
British philosopher Hastings Rashdall summarises the answer to this question succinctly when he said: “We say that the Moral Law has a real existence, that there is such a thing as an absolute [i.e. objective] Morality, that there is something absolutely [i.e., objectively] true or false in ethical judgements, whether we or any number of human beings at any given time actually think so or not….We must therefore face the question where such an ideal exists, and what manner of existence we are to attribute to it. Certainly it is to be found, wholly and completely, in no individual human consciousness….Only if we believe in the existence of a Mind for which the true moral ideal is already in some sense real, a Mind which is the source of whatever is true in our own moral judgements, can we rationally think of the moral ideal as no less real than the world itself. Only so can we believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong, which is independent of this or that man’s actual ideas and actual desires as the facts of material nature. The belief in God…is the logical presupposition of an “objective” or absolute Morality. A moral ideal can exist nowhere and nohow but in a Mind; an absolute moral ideal can exist only in a Mind from which all Reality is derived. Our moral ideal can only claim objective validity in so far as it can rationally be regarded as the revelation of a moral ideal eternally existing in the mind of God” (Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, 2: 211 – 12, cited in Faith and Reason by Ronald H. Nash, pp. 160, 161).
In short if morality (in particular that ideal, decent and humane morality by which Mr. Stahl would like all men to live; even if only in part) is to be worth its salt it must have its foundation and source in God – the absolute moral governor of the universe.
*Roger Marshall is executive director of Project PROBE Ministries a Barbadian Christian apologetics organisation.