The Arc of the Moral Universe
“Science can investigate nature and inquire into the empirical world, but it cannot answer moral questions or disprove free will. That is because morality and freedom are not empirical concepts. We can’t prove that they exist, but neither can we make sense of our moral lives without presupposing them,” (Michael Sandel, Justice, p. 129).
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” (Theodore Parker, 1853)
If you were to ask most skeptics of Christianity today what the basis of their skepticism comes from, my guess is that there would be many answers ranging from scientific, to philosophical, to historical ones. But my experience has shown me that the most common reason, and even what undergirds most of the other reasons, is really a moral one. It can look like:
“I, or someone I know, was hurt by the Church.”
“Christians advocate and stand for things that I find morally reprehensible.”
“Haven’t evil things been done in the past by Christians?”
And to that last point, consider just one example from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845. Before he had escaped to freedom, Douglass was under one master who was an irreligious man who eventually became religious and began attending church. But, rather than soften him, his new found faith made him more savage and brutal than before. Douglass then went on:
Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have found them, almost invariably, the vilest, meanest and basest of their class. (Chapter X)
This is just one example, but we could rattle off many more: what about all the stories of sexual and physical abuse that take place in churches? What about the wars of religion in the 16th century between Protestants and Catholics? What about the Spanish Inquisition?
Many modern people today have a default posture of moral skepticism as they approach Christianity. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t care about morality. If past generations found the basis for morality to come from religion, we now desire a new basis, but we still deeply care about right and wrong. In fact, one could argue that issues of justice and morality are more central in our culture than they have been in recent years. We are suspect of the past and its traditional framework of morality because it led to exploitation and abuse.
A New Basis for Morality?
Let me share a classic proof of God’s existence, commonly referred to as the Moral Argument:
Premise 1: If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: God exists.
That is a formally valid syllogism, meaning that if the premises are true, the conclusion logically follows. How would a skeptic respond to that?
Objective moral values and duties can exist without God.
They could rely on rationality to discern moral values. There are certain moral facts that are self-evident, as the preamble to the Declaration of Independence tells us, like the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So (they would argue) we need only the right mental framework or ethical system to discern what those values are. Let’s call this view rationalism.
They could point to science or biology to empirically prove right and wrong. Certain behaviors lead to human flourishing, certain behaviors lead to negative outcomes. Evolution is often used in this vein as an explanatory hypothesis for where our moral impulses come from. The “herd instinct” is one common manifestation of this reasoning. Let’s call this view empiricism.
Or, they could simply point to many atheists who live seemingly moral lives, or conversely, point to religious people who live immoral lives. Let’s call this view, No duh.
A Christian Rebuttal, in reverse order:
1. No-duh: Christianity doesn’t teach that one must believe in God in order to live morally. In fact, the Bible explains that because all human beings are made in the image of God, that means we have a moral energy inherent in us. We are moralizing creatures by design. The question is whether or not your life is lived consistently with your worldview. Just like it is possible to rev an engine, but go nowhere if the clutch isn’t engaged, so too can an individual have a mental framework that they fail to live consistently by. So, I would never claim that simply by believing in God or failing to do so would make someone morally praiseworthy or reprehensible. The more serious issue is, does your current lifestyle make sense if your worldview was lived out consistently—this would be a challenge both to the moral atheist and the immoral religious person.
2. Empiricism: The problem with assuming science can discern morality is that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what science and morality are. Science is concerned with what is, while morality is concerned with what ought to be. And to go from is to ought requires more than science. For instance, let’s assume that our moral values emerge from an evolutionary process. The reason we prize selflessness and honesty and courage is because these characteristics had survival value to our ancestors, while selfish, dishonest, and cowardly ancestors had low survival rates. Let’s assume that is an accurate telling of the genealogy of our morals. This all, however, is simply a description of what is. It does not give me the ought. “Sure it does,” the skeptic replies, “the ought is your herd instinct you experience that informs you with moral decisions that were forged in the millions of years of the evolutionary process. If you strongly feel like cowardice is wrong, it is probably because cowardice doesn’t lead to the human race flourishing, so you ought to follow that moral intuition.”
“Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one not on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard,” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, “Some Objections”).
Even if science could tell me what is moral or immoral (which I don’t think it can), it has no basis for telling me what I must do. Maybe helping the old woman being mugged on the street comes from some ancestral evolutionary instinct, but what if I just don’t want to do it? Further, morality emerges as an evolutionary process, then doesn’t that mean that it is inherently malleable? That our moral judgments are not objective? Maybe our ancestors needed to be communal and altruistic, but what if being selfish and conniving is the next rung on the evolutionary ladder?
“If…men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would…think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters,” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man).
3. Rationalism: What about the claim that some moral facts are self-evident—you ought to be kind, to tell the truth, to not take advantage of the weak, etc.—and if you just have the right cognitive framework, you can provide a basis for moral values and obligations. Sam Harris is a popular advocate of this view, combining both an evolutionary model with a kind of utilitarian altruism to create an atheistic framework for morality: “Questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures. If we are in a position to affect the happiness or suffering of others, we have ethical responsibilities toward them,” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 170-71).
The problem with this is similar to the previous problem—there is an explanation of what is (the definition of right and wrong), but no basis for the ought at the end. Why should I have an ethical responsibility towards anyone?
Further, there is no standard for happiness or suffering nor any objective way to measure it. Here is a thought experiment: there is always a shortage of human organs for those who are waiting for transplants. Would it be wrong for hospitals to hire assassins to kill citizens whose organs could then be used to save the lives of several people who will die unless they receive a transplant? Sure, they die, but if we could quantify suffering and happiness, wouldn’t it seem that the amount of happiness (to the patients) minus the amount of suffering (to the killed citizen) would result in a greater aggregate amount of happiness in the world? Now, what if the person who was killed was older? And what if they had actually signed up to become an organ donor? And what if the assassins made the execution painless? And what if they had no living relatives? Would it be right to then kill them? Or, let’s say I could enslave one person against their will and could make the lives of a hundred people by it more comfortable, would that be wrong?
Of course, we would all say: Yes! You cannot murder people or enslave people against their will. But, why? Because all humans have rights! Perhaps the most popular conception of human rights comes from the passing reference we mentioned previously in the Declaration of Independence. But if we look at it, we realize that it presents a problem for someone looking ground human rights in materialistic worldview: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The equality of mankind and unalienable rights afforded them are contingent upon a Supernatural Creator who gives these rights. In other words, human rights are, as Sandel pointed out earlier, not empirically verifiable.
“Most legal systems in the world today are based on a belief in human rights. But what are human rights? Human rights…like God and heaven, are just a story that we’ve invented. They are not an objective reality. They’re not a biological fact about Homo sapiens. Take a human being, cut him open, look inside; you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA. But you won’t find any rights. The only place you find rights is in the stories that we have invented and spread…over the last few centuries. They may be very positive stories, very good stories. But they are still just fictional stories that we’ve invented,” (Yuval Noah Harari, What Explains the Rise of Humans, Ted Talks)
And, believe it or not, most of the values that we cherish in Western culture are not self-evident truths to many other cultures around the world and throughout time. Care for the poor, the weak, and the destitute; the value of kindness, compassion, and equality; the dignity and value of the individual, the importance of humility and self-denial, none of these things are self-evident, and many of them fly in the face of many other cultures and customs. Where did these come from? They came, as authors like Tom Holland, Larry Siedentop, Rodney Stark, Glen Scrivener, Larry Hurtado and many others, explicitly from Christianity’s influence on the West.
To make morally objective value judgments (this is right, that is wrong) requires a transcendent standard. To claim that the line is crooked implies that there is an objective standard of “straight” that I can compare the crooked line with. Empirical or rational arguments for objective moral standards don’t provide a satisfying explanation for our moral judgments.
So, if the first premise, “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist,” then maybe the second premise can be proven false: “Objective moral values and duties exist.”
Objective moral values and duties do not exist.
If moral questions are so difficult to answer, maybe that’s because there is no answer? Maybe our moral judgments are all the by-product of the cultures we grew up in or personal preference, and there is no way to adjudicate who is right or wrong.
“God does not exist [and] all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him…Everything is permissible if God does not exist,” (Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions).
Sartre here is referencing Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan Karamazov, the suave atheist of the novel, claims that “everything is permitted” because God doesn’t exist. But while Sartre is using that positively, Dostoevsky was using it as a warning.
The reality: No one can live like this.
The warning: this inherently leads to exploitation.
Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals:
“That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no ground for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs says among themselves: ‘these birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey, but rather its opposite, a lamb – would he not be good?’ there is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal except perhaps that the birds of prey might view it a little ironically and say: ‘we don’t dislike them at all, these good little lambs; we even love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb'” (Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, I, 13)
187 million people died from war or war related crimes in the 20th century, 10% of the population of the earth in 1913
- Human rights: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” (Gen 9:6).
- Uncoerced conversion and salvation by faith alone
- A God of love and mercy as the transcendent standard for morality
- A God of love and mercy as the source of forgiveness
- A God of love and mercy who has experienced injustice
But what about Christianity’s sins in the past?
Does it flow from the worldview, or in contradiction to it?
“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land,” (Douglass, Appendix)
 While this is a common formulation, I am indebted to Neil Shenvi in Why Believe?, p. 114 for laying it out so precisely in a formal syllogism.