I don’t need God to be good, I don’t need someone watching over me to do what is right; I don’t need a reward to do what is good; I don’t need to God to know that I should be kind, loving and generous to people, I don’t need God to know that raping little babies and torturing them for my personal pleasure is wrong, I don’t need God to know that human and sex trafficking is wrong, I don’t need God to do was is good. And I think any honest person will agree that people don’t necessarily have to believe in God to know what is morally good and right. People don’t have to believe in God to be upstanding law abiding citizens, to contribute to the betterment of society.
The question is rather where do moral values and duties come from? Where does the idea that certain things are wrong and others are right come from? Where does good come from?
The first option we must choose is whether they come from inside us or outside- in other words are they subjective or objective. What does it mean that something is subjective? If I say that chocolate ice-cream is my favorite flavor and someone else says their favorite is vanilla there is no right or wrong answer. We are both simply stating what our preference is, what feels pleasurable or desirable to us. If morality is subjective as well then it would fall in this same category.
How true is this? I think a closer inspection of this position and you find few of us really believe that morality is subjective. To say morality is subjective means that it is completely dependent on the person, culture or society that holds it and therefore one cannot say which moral views are better or worse. It means that one cannot say one person’s moral view is wrong and another person’s is right – both are simply expressing their personal preference.
However, few of us hold to this position because if really true that morality is subjective; then you have to admit that the rapist that kidnaps 10 year old girls and keeps them as his sex slaves for 10 years is doing what is right to him and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. The racist white man who goes into a black church and slaughters them has not done anything really wrong it is just his preference. There would be nothing wrong with apartheid then – a political system designed to keep one race subservient and exploited and another to flourish because it would simply be what racists prefer. Can we consistently live with those implications?
If morality is subjective then the conclusion is actually that there really is no good, evil, right or wrong. I have yet to meet someone who can consistently live on this basis, in fact our whole political systems, laws, human rights are built on the fact that there are moral absolutes – raping a baby is absolutely wrong whether you prefer it or not, whether it brings pleasure to you or not. Apartheid is despicable whether you prefer it or not. A subjective view of morality undermines and contradicts our practical everyday understanding of morality.
Suppose we then say say it’s objective – which means its existence does not depend on the subjective preference of humans beings but rather exists independently from human beings and our job is to recognize them. Where then are they from?
We could say perhaps they a product of evolution. Humans developed certain behavioural social traits as an aid to human reproduction and survival. However this explanation begs the question because one may still ask what makes behaviour that leads to human survival morally good? Simply because we have social traits that cause us to behave in way that promotes human survival it does not necessarily follow that it is good. But that’s exactly the question we are asking – what makes any behaviour that leads to human flourishing good, and that which does not bad? Why is human flourishing good?
Another problem with the evolutionary ethics paradigm is that how can universal moral values be the product of a particular biological history that could have easily been different. Charles Darwin realised the implications of this, he says in the Descent of Man,
“If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.”
What Darwin is saying, is that natural selection works by chance and therefore our morality could have turned out differently. What we think is good and bad, could have easily turned out to be the opposite if it led to human survival. We could have turned out like killer bees, thinking it is our sacred duty to kill infant brothers and sisters. So we could have had a different morality, however this then means morality is not absolute but relative to the particular biological history that humans took. The implication is then that our moral values are completely arbitrary a product of blind chance no different to deciding whether we should rape little girls or not by tossing a coin. Heads we rape and tails we don’t – and by chance the natural selection coin toss turned up tails.
My third problem with evolutionary ethics is that natural selection is an amoral process which does not distinguish between good and bad but only survival and non-survival. Famous biologist Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog, wrote a brilliant essay detailing why evolution cannot give a basis for universal morality. He highlights this point and says,
“The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before”.
What Huxley points out is that all of our behavioural traits are all equally a product of evolution, the ones we classify as bad are as much a product of natural selection as the ones we call good. So we really have no basis or standard on which to say some of those traits are good and some are bad if they are all equally a result of evolution.
Natural selection works by eliminating traits in the gene pool which are detrimental to survival. If trait X inhibits the survival of the species, overtime natural selection will work to decrease trait X in the population’s gene pool. However if trait X does not hinder survival – natural selection has no problem with it and preserves it. Judging by the fact that “immorality” is a consistent feature of human nature as much as morality, natural selection clearly has no problem with those immoral traits. Natural selection has no preference – rape, murder, love, racism, slavery, equality are all the same – as long as they don’t harm survival they will be preserved.
The individual who follows his desires to rape and kill girls is only acting in accordance with the desires which natural selection has preserved within the human gene pool. So again the premises of evolution by natural selection when followed through to their logical conclusion give no basis for the existence of objective moral values. Atheism if true leads to the conclusion that life is intrinsically amoral and at best morality is subjective.
What is the alternative? We know that universal morality is fundamentally related to persons and must have a basis in personhood. However that person cannot be part of a particular society or culture but must transcend all societies at all times to truly be universal. God is an infinite-personal being, his unchanging, eternal morally perfect nature and character provide the basis for universal moral values.
If God does not exist then “all things are permitted”. So yes – we might not need to believe in God to do what is good, or know what is good, but absolutely we do need him if we are to have anything being objectively good and right.