Morality is certainly an important facet of the human condition, and as a philosophical topic of such high regard, it clearly deserves critical reflection and a thorough analysis. It is often the case that when people think of ethics, moral values, and moral duties, religion enters the discussion, specifically in terms of the widely held (although certainly not ubiquitous) belief that religions provide some form of objective foundation for morals and ethics. The primary concern here regarding morals is determining whether our morals are ontologically objective in some way or another, and even if they are, is it still accurate to describe morality as some kind of an emergent human construct that is malleable and produced by naturalistic socio-biological processes?
One of the most common theistic arguments, commonly referred to as the Divine Command Theory, states that the existence of a God (or many gods for that matter) necessarily provides an ontologically objective foundation for morals and ethics. Furthermore, coinciding with this belief are the necessary supportive beliefs that God exists and that this God is inherently “good”, for if either of these assumptions were not also the case, then the theistic foundation for morals (i.e. what is deemed to be “good”) would be unjustified. The assumption that God exists, and that this God is inherently “good” is based upon yet a few more assumptions, although there is plenty of religious and philosophical contention regarding which assumptions are necessary, let alone which are valid.
Let’s examine some of the arguments that have been used to try and prove the existence of God as well as some arguments used to show that an existent God is necessarily good. After these arguments are examined, I will conclude this post with a brief look at moral objectivity including the most common motivations underlying its proposed existence, the implications of believing in theologically grounded objective morals, and finally, some thoughts about our possible moral future.
The Cosmological Argument for God’s existence basically asserts that every effect has a cause, and thus if the universe began to exist, it too must have had a cause. It is then proposed that the initial cause is something transcendent from physical reality, something supernatural, or what many would refer to as a God. We can see that this argument most heavily relies on the initial assumption of causality. While causality certainly appears to be an attribute of our universe, Hume was correct to point out the problem of induction, whereby, causality itself is not known to exist by a priori reasoning, but rather by a posteriori reasoning, otherwise known as induction. Because of this, our assumption of causality is not logically grounded, and therefore it is not necessarily true.
Clearly science relies on this assumption of causality as well as on the efficacy of induction, but its predictive power and efficacy only requires that causal relationships hold up most of the time, although perhaps it would be better to say that science only requires that causal relationships hold up with the phenomena it wishes to describe. It is not a requirement for performing science that everything is causally closed or operating under causal principles. Even quantum mechanics has shown us acausal properties whereby atomic and subatomic particles exhibit seemingly random behavior with no local hidden variables found. It may be the case that ontologically speaking, the seemingly random quantum behavior is actually governed by causal processes (albeit with non-local hidden variables), but we’ve found no evidence for such causal processes. So it seems unjustified to assume that causality is necessarily the case, not only because this assumption has been derived from logically uncertain induction alone, but also because within science, specifically within quantum physics, we’ve actually observed what appear to be completely acausal processes. As such, it is certainly both possible and plausible that the universe arose from acausal processes as well, with this possibility heavily supported by the quantum mechanical principles that underlie it.
To provide a more satisfying explanation for how something could come from nothing (as in some acausal process), one could look at abstract concepts within mathematics for an analogy. For example, if 0 = (-1) + (1), and “0” is analogous to “nothing”, then couldn’t “nothing” (i.e. “0”) be considered equivalent to the collection of complementary “somethings” (e.g. “-1” and “+1”)? That is, couldn’t a “0” state have existed prior to the Big Bang, and this produced two universes, say, “-1” and “+1”? Clearly one could ask how or why the “0” state transformed into anything at all, but if the collection or sum of those things are equivalent to the “0” which one started with, then perhaps the question of how or why is an illogical question to begin with. Perhaps this ill-formulated question would be analogous to asking how zero can spontaneously give rise to zero. In any case, quantum mechanical principles certainly defy logic and intuition, and so there’s no reason to suppose that the origins of the universe should be any less illogical or counter-intuitive. Additionally, it is entirely possible that our conceptions of “nothing” and “something” may not be ontologically accurate or coherent with respect to cosmology and quantum physics, even if we think of those concepts as trivial and seemingly obvious in other domains of knowledge.
Even if the universe was internally causal within its boundaries and thus with every process inside that universe, would that imply that the universe as a whole, from an external perspective, would be bound by the same causal processes? To give an analogy, imagine that the universe is like a fishbowl, and the outer boundary of the fishbowl is completely opaque and impenetrable. To all inhabitants inside the fishbowl (e.g. some fish swimming in water), there isn’t anything to suppose except for what exists within the boundary, i.e., the water, the fish, and the laws of physics that govern the motion and physical processes therein (e.g. buoyant or freely floating objects and a certain amount of frictional drag between the fish and the water). Now it could be that this fishbowl of a universe is itself contained within a much larger environment (e.g. a multi-verse or some meta-space) with physical laws that don’t operate like those within the fishbowl. For example, the meta-space could be completely dry, where the fishbowl of a universe isn’t itself buoyant or floating in any way, and the universe (when considered as one object) doesn’t experience any frictional drag between itself and the meta-space medium around it. Due to the opaque surface of the fishbowl, the inhabitants are unaware that the fishbowl itself isn’t floating, just as they are unaware of any of the other foreign physical laws or properties that lay outside of it. In the same sense, we could be erroneously assuming that the universe itself is a part of some causal process, simply because everything within the universe appears to operate under causal processes. Thus, it may be the case that the universe as a whole, from an external perspective that we have no access to, is not governed by the laws we see within the universe, be they the laws of time, space, causality, etc.
Even if the universe was caused by something, one can always ask, what caused the cause? The proposition that a God exists provides no solution to this problem, for we’d then want to know who or what created that God, and this would create an infinite regress. If one tries to solve the infinite regress by contending that a God has always existed, then we can simplify the explanation further by removing any God from it and simply positing that the universe has always existed. Even if the Big Bang model within cosmology is correct in some sense, what if the universe has constantly undergone some kind of cycle whereby a Big Bang is preceded by and eventually succeeded by a Big Crunch ad infinitum? Even if we have an epistemological limitation from ever confirming such a model, for example, if the information of any previous universe is somehow lost with the start of every new cycle, it is certainly a possible model, and one that no longer requires an even more complex entity to explain, such as a God.
It is often claimed by theists that the dimensionless physical constants in our universe appear to be finely tuned such that matter, let alone intelligent life, could exist. Supposedly, if these physical constants were changed by even a small amount, life as we know it (including the evolution of consciousness) wouldn’t be possible, therefore, the universe was finely tuned by an intelligent designer, or a God. Furthermore, it is often argued that it has been finely tuned for the eventual evolution of conscious human beings.
One question that can be posed in response to this argument is whether or not the physical constants could be better than they currently are, such that the universe would be even more conducive to matter, life, and eventually intelligent life. Indeed, it has been determined that the physical constants could be much better than they are, and we can also clearly see that the universe is statistically inhospitable to life, empirically supported by the fact that we have yet to find life elsewhere in the universe. Statistically, it is still very likely that life exists in many other places throughout the universe, but it certainly doesn’t exist in most places. Changing the physical constants in just the right way would indeed make life ubiquitous. So it doesn’t appear that the universe was really finely tuned at all, at least not for any of the reasons that have been supposed.
There have also been other naturalistic theories presented as possible solutions to the fine-tuning argument, such as that of the Multi-verse, whereby we are but one universe living among an extremely large number of other universes (potentially infinite, although not necessarily so), and each universe has slightly different physical constants. In a way, we could say that a form of natural selection among universes occurs, where the appearance of a finely tuned universe is analogous to the apparent design in biological nature. We now know that natural selection along with some differentiation mechanisms are all that are necessary to produce the appearance of designed phenotypes. The same thing could apply to universes, and by the anthropic principle, we can see that those universes that had physical constants within a particular range conducive to life, and eventually intelligent life, would indeed be the type of universe that we are living in such that we can even ask the question. That is, some universes could be naturally selected to undergo the evolution of consciousness and eventually self-awareness.
There have been other theories presented to account for the appearance of a finely tuned universe such as a quantum superposition of initial conditions during the Big Bang, but they utilize the same basic principles of cosmic differentiation and natural selection, and so need not be mentioned further. In any case, we can see that there are several possible naturalistic explanations for what appear to be finely tuned physical constants.
An even more important point worth mentioning is the possibility that every combination of physical constants could produce some form of consciousness completely unfathomable to us. We have yet to solve the mind-body problem (if it is indeed solvable), and so without knowing what physical mechanism produces consciousness, are we justified in assuming which processes can not produce consciousness? Even if consciousness as we know it is limited to carbon-based biological organisms with brains, can we justifiably dismiss the possibility of completely different mechanisms and processes that lead to some form of self-regulating “life”, “consciousness”, or “awareness”? Even a form of life or consciousness that does not involve brains, let alone atoms or molecules? If this is the case, then all universes could have some form of “life” or “consciousness”, even if they would never come close to falling within our limited definition of such concepts.
“God is Good” & The Ontological Argument
The assumption that a God which exists must necessarily be a good God is definitely necessary for one to believe that the existence of that God provides an ontologically objective foundation for morals and ethics. So what exactly is the basis for this assumption that a God must necessarily be good?
This assumption has been derived by many from some versions of what is known as the Ontological Argument for God’s existence. This argument, believed to have been first asserted by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the year 1078 CE, basically asserts that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being. However, if the greatest conceivable being is supposedly limited to the mind, that is, as a mental construct, then an even greater conceivable being is possible, namely one that actually exists outside of the mind as an entity in reality, therefore, God exists in both the mind as well as in reality. Furthermore, regarding the concept of God being good, some people take this argument further and believe that the greatest conceivable being, that is, a God, also has to be good, since it is believed that the most perfect God, by definition, would deserve to be worshipped, and would only create or command that which is best. So it follows then by the Ontological Argument, that not only God exists, but also that God must necessarily be good.
One obvious criticism to this argument is the fact that just because one can conceive of something, that act in itself certainly doesn’t make that conception exist in any sense other than as a mental construct. Even if I can conceive of a perfect object, like a perfect planet that is perfectly spherical for example, this doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to exist. Even if I limit my conceptions to a perfect God, what if I conceive of two perfect beings, with the assumption that two perfect beings are somehow better than one? Does this mean that two perfect beings must necessarily exist? How about an infinite number of perfect beings? Isn’t an infinite number of infinitely perfect beings the best conception of all? If so, why isn’t this conception necessarily existent in reality as well? Such an assertion would indeed provide proof for polytheism. One could certainly argue over which conceptions are truly perfect or the best, and thus which should truly produce something necessarily in reality, but regardless, one still hasn’t shown how conceptions alone can lead to realities. Notice also that the crux of St. Anselm’s argument is dependent on one’s definition of what God is, which leads me to what I believe to be a much more important criticism of the Ontological Argument.
The primary criticism I have with such an argument, or any argument claiming particular attributes of a God for that matter, is the lack of justification for assuming that anyone could actually know anything about a God. Are we to assume that any attributes at all of a God should necessarily be within the limits of human comprehension? This assumption of such a potent human attribute of understanding sounds incredibly pretentious, egotistical, and entirely unsubstantiated. As for the common assumptions about what God is, why would a God necessarily have to be different from, or independent of, the universe itself, as presumably required for an ontologically objective foundation for morality? Pantheists for example (which can be classified as atheists as far as I’m concerned), assume that the universe itself is God, and thus the universe needed no creator nor anything independent of itself. Everything in the universe is considered a part of that God and that’s simply all there is to it.
If one takes a leap of faith and assumes that a presumed God not only exists, but is indeed also independent of the universe in some way, aren’t they even less justified in making claims about the attributes of this God? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that they’d have an even larger epistemological barrier between themselves and an external, separate, and independent God? It seems incredibly clear that any claims about what a God would be like are based on the unsubstantiated assumption that humans must necessarily have access to such knowledge, and in order to hold such a view, it seems that one would have to abandon all logic and reasoning.
One common challenge to the Divine Command Theory mentioned earlier is the Euthyphro dilemma, whereby one must determine if actions are good simply because a presumed God commands them, or rather that the presumed God commands particular actions because they are good independently of that God. If the former premise is chosen, this would imply that whatever a God commands, even if humans or others see those commands to be immoral, that they must be moral and good regardless of human criticisms. If the latter premise is chosen, then morality is clearly not dependent on God thus defeating the Divine Command Theory altogether as well as the precept that God is omnipotent (since God in this case wouldn’t ultimately have control over defining what is good and what is not good). So for those that ascribe to the Divine Command Theory, it appears that they also have to accept that all moral actions (no matter how immoral they may seem to us) are indeed moral simply because a God commands them. One should also contemplate that if a God were theoretically able to modify its commands over time (presumably possible with an omnipotent God), then any theological objective foundation for morals would be malleable and subject to change, thereby reducing, if not defeating, the pragmatic utility of that objective foundation.
There are many people that have absolutely no problem with such Divine Command Theory assumptions, including the many theists that accept and justify the purported acts of their God (or gods), despite there being an enormous number of people outside of those particular religions that see many of those acts as heinous and morally reprehensible (e.g. divinely authorized war, murder, rape, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, sexual-orientationism, etc.). Another problem that exists for the Divine Command Theory is the problem of contradictory divine commands, whereby many different religions each claim to follow divine commands despite the fact that the divine commands of one religion may differ from another. These differences clearly indicate that even if the Divine Command Theory were true, the fact that people don’t agree on what those divine commands are, and the fact that there is no known method for confirming what the true divine commands are, illustrates that the theory is pragmatically useless as it fails to actually provide any way of knowing what these ontologically objective morals and ethics would be. In other words, even if morals did have a theologically-based ontologically objective foundation, it appears that we have an epistemological barrier from ever confirming such an objective status.
Argument from Morality for the Existence of God
Some believe in what is often referred to as the “Moral Argument for God” or the “Argument from Morality”, whereby at least one variation asserts that because moral values exist in some sense, it then follows that a God must necessarily exist, since nature on its own appears to be morally neutral, as nature doesn’t appear to have any reason or mechanism for producing moral values from purely physical or materialistic processes. One can also see that by accepting such an assertion, if one wants to believe in the existence of an objective foundation for morals, one need only believe that morals exist, for this supposedly implies that God exists, and it is presumed that an existent God (if one ascribes to the common assumption that “God” must be good as explained earlier) also provides an objective foundation for morals.
Well, what if morals are not actually separate from naturalistic mechanisms and explanations? While nature may appear to be morally neutral, there is evidence to suggest that what we often call “morality” (at least partially) resulted from natural selection pressures ingraining into humans a tendency for reciprocal altruism among other innate behaviors that have been beneficial to the survival of our highly social species, or at least beneficial in the context of the environment we once lived in prior to our cultural evolution into civilization. For example, altruism, which can roughly be expressed or represented by the Golden Rule (i.e. do to others what you would have them do to you), is a beneficial behavior for it provides an impulse toward productive cooperation and reciprocal favors between individuals. Another example of innate morality would be the innate aversion from incest, and this also makes evolutionary sense because incestual reproduction is more likely to produce birth defects due to genetically identical recessive mutations or problematic genes being expressed more often.
These innate tendencies, that is, what we innately feel to be good and bad behaviors are what we often label as “moral” and “immoral” behaviors, respectively. It is certainly plausible that after our unconscious, pre-conscious, or primitively conscious ancestors evolved into self-aware and more complex conscious beings that were able to culturally transmit information over generations as well as learn new behavior, they also realized that their innate tendencies and feelings were basically fixed attributes of their human nature that couldn’t simply be unlearned or modified culturally. Without having any idea where these innate tendencies came from, due to a lack of knowledge about evolutionary biology and psychology, humans likely intuitively concluded that moral values (or at least those that are innate) were something supernaturally based or divinely ordained. It is at least arguable that not all morals that humans ascribe to are necessarily innate, as there also appears to be a malleable moral influence derived from the cultural transmission of certain memes, often aided by our intellectual ability to override certain instincts. However, I think it would be more accurate to say that our most fundamental goals in life in terms of achieving personal satisfaction (through cultivating virtues and behaving with respect to the known consequences of our actions) constitutes our fundamental morality — and I think that this morality is indeed innate based on evolutionary psychology, biology, etc.
Additionally, a large number of these culturally transmitted behaviors (that we often label as “morals”) often align with our innate moral tendencies anyway, for example, memes promoting racism may be supported by our natural tendency to conveniently lump people into groups and see outsiders as dangerous or threatening. Or the opposite may occur, for example, when memes promoting racial equality may be supported by our natural tendency for racially-neutral reciprocal altruism. Clearly what we tend to call “morals” are an amalgam of culturally transmitted ideas as well as innate predispositions, that is, they result from socio-biological or cultural-biological processes — even if there is an innate fundamental morality that serves as an objective foundation for those culturally constructed morals.
Moreover, since other animals (or at least most other animals) do not seem to exhibit what we call moral behavior, it is likely that most humans saw it (and many still continue to see it) as a unique property of humans alone, and thus somehow existing independently of the rest of the nature around them. One response to this anthropocentric perspective would be to note that if we look at other animals’ behavior, they may just as easily be described as having their own morals based on their own naturally selected innate behavioral tendencies, even if those morals are completely different from our own, and even if those morals are not as intelligently informed due to our more complex brains and self-awareness (most notably in the case of culturally transmitted morals). Now it may be true that what evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and sociologists have discovered to be the mechanism or explanation for human morality, as well as how we choose to define that morality naturalistically, is not something that certain people want to accept. However, that lack of acceptance or lack of comfort doesn’t make it any less true or any less plausible. It seems that some people simply want morality to have a different kind of ontological status or some level of objectivity, such that they can find more solace in their convictions and also to support their anthropocentric presuppositions.
Objective Morality, Moral Growth, and our Moral Future
While the many arguments for God have been refuted or at least highly challenged, it appears that the actual existence of God isn’t nearly as important as people’s belief in such a God, especially when it comes to concepts such as morality. Sartre once quoted Dostoyevsky as saying, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.” I personally feel that this quote illustrates quite eloquently why so many people feel compelled to argue that a God exists (among other reasons), as many seem to feel that without the notion of a God existing, the supposed lack of an objective foundation for morality will lead people to do whatever they want to do, and thus people will no longer ascribe to truly “moral” behavior. However, as we can clearly see, there are many atheists who behave quite morally relative to the Golden Rule, if we must indeed specify some moral frame of reference. There are also plenty of people who believe in a God and yet behave in ways that are morally reprehensible relative to the same Golden Rule standard. The key difference between the atheist and the theist, at least concerning moral objectivity, is that the atheist, by definition, doesn’t believe that any of their behavior has a theologically grounded objective ontological status to justify it, although the atheist may still believe in some type of moral objectivity (likely grounded in a science of morality, which is a view I actually agree with). On the other hand, the theist does believe in a theological basis for moral objectivity, so if either the atheist or theist behave in ways that you or I would find morally reprehensible, the theist alone would actually feel religiously obligated to do so.
Regarding the concern for a foundation for morals, I think it is fair to say that the innate morality of human beings, that is, those morals that have been ingrained in us for evolutionary reasons (such as altruism), could be described as having a reliable foundation, even if not an ontologically objective one. On top of this “naturally selected” foundation for morality, we can build upon it by first asking ourselves why we believe moral behavior is important in the first place. If humans overwhelmingly agree that morality is important for promoting and maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures (with higher-level conscious creatures prioritized over those with less complex brains and lower-level consciousness), or if they agree with the contra-positive of that proposition, that morality is important for inhibiting and minimizing the suffering of conscious creatures, then one could say that humans at least have a moral axiom that they could ascribe to. This moral axiom, i.e., that moral behavior is defined as that which maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures (as proposed by many “Science of Morality” proponents such as Sam Harris), is indeed an axiom that one can further build upon, refine, and implement through the use of epistemologically objective methods in science. Even if this “moral axiom” doesn’t provide an ontologically objective morality, it has a foundation that is grounded on human intuition, reason, and empirical data. If one argues that this still isn’t as good as having a theologically grounded ontologically objective morality, then one must realize that the theological assumptions for said moral objectivity have no empirical basis at all. After all, even if a God does in fact exist, why exactly would a God necessarily provide an objective foundation for morals? More importantly, as I mentioned earlier, there appears to be no epistemologically objective way to ascertain any ontologically objective morals, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.
One can also see that the theist’s position, in terms of which morals to follow, is supposedly fixed, although history has shown us that religions and their morals can change over time, either by modifying the scripture or basic tenets, or by modifying the interpretation of said scripture or basic tenets. Even if moral modifications take place with a religion or its followers, the claim of moral objectivity (and an intentional resistance to change those morals) is often maintained, paradoxically. On the other hand, the atheist’s position on morals is not inherently fixed and thus the atheist is at least possibly amenable to reason in order to modify the morals they ascribe to, with the potential to culturally adapt to a society that increasingly abhors war, murder, rape, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, sexual-orientationism, etc. Whereas the typical theist can not morally adapt to the culturally evolving world around them (at least not consciously or admittedly), even as more evidence and data are obtained pertaining to a better understanding of that world, the typical atheist indeed has these opportunities for moral growth.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, human nature is malleable and will continue to change as our species continues to evolve. As such, our innate predispositions regarding moral behavior will likely continue to change as it has throughout our evolutionary history. If we utilize “engineered selection” through the aid of genetic engineering, our moral malleability will be catalyzed and these changes to human nature will precipitate incredibly quickly and with conscious foresight. Theists are no exception to evolution, and thus they will continue to evolve as well, and as a result their innate morality will also be subject to change. Any changes that do occur to human nature will also likely affect which memes are culturally transmitted (including memes pertaining to morality) and thus morality will likely continue to be a dynamic amalgam of both biological and cultural influences. So despite the theistic fight for an objective foundation for morality, it appears that the complex interplay between evolution and culture that led to theism in the first place will continue to change, and the false idea of any ontologically objective foundation for morality existing will likely continue to dissipate.
History has shown us that reason as well as our innate drive for reciprocal altruism is all we need in order to behave in ways that adhere to the Golden Rule (or to some other moral axiom that maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures). Reason and altruism have also given us the capability of adapting our morals as we learn more about our species and the consequences of our actions. These assets, combined with a genetically malleable human nature will likely lead us to new moral heights over time. In the mean time, we have reason and an innate drive for altruism to morally guide us. It should be recognized that some religions which profess the existence of a God and an objective morality also abide by some altruistic principles, but many of them do not (or do so inconsistently), and when they do, they are likely driven by our innate altruism anyway. However, it takes belief in a God and its objective foundation for morality to most effectively justify behaving in any way imaginable, often in ways that negate both reason and our instinctual drive for altruism, and often reinforced by the temptation of eternal reward and the threat of eternal damnation. In any case, the belief in moral objectivity (or more specifically moral absolutes), let alone the belief in theologically grounded moral objectivity or absolutism, appears to be a potentially dangerous one.