Is it possible to be good without God? In many ways, it depends on what is meant by that question. If one means, “Is it possible for human beings who do not believe in God to live a moral life?” then the answer is: yes. There are a lot of people out there who do not believe in God, yet live basically good, upright lives. Chances are, you know some. I know some. They love their families, keep the law, give to charities, but they don’t believe in God. But that unbelief does not mean that they fail to live morally. So the question has nothing to do with ones’ ability to live morally or not. Nor is it a question of our ability to know right from wrong. This isn’t a question of epistemology, or our ability to know. We know from experience that many unbelievers do know right from wrong, and it would be irresponsible and untrue to claim that they do not just on that basis. So what on earth does the question, “Can man be good without God?” have to do with? It has everything to do with ontology: or reality. When we ask the question, we are really asking, “does morality really have any framework apart from God?” “Does being moral actually mean something?” Is a discussion of right and wrong meaningful without a transcendent God in which to ground that discussion? Can morality be explained without the existence of God, or does it actually point us to the real and living God? These are the questions that this series of articles will seek to answer.
Before we can go anywhere in a discussion like this, it is important for us to lay a foundation of moral reality on which to build. We can not even begin to discuss the meaning and explanation of morality, let alone come to any conclusions about it, until we have established an understanding of the nature of moral value. That is to say, we can’t try to explain morality unless we understand what morality is. To that end, this first article will discuss the nature of reality; particularly, this article will seek to establish that moral values are objective in nature, rather than subjective.
Objective moral values. Those words are a mouthful, so we should examine them and figure out what they mean. What is a moral value? Essentially, a moral value is a belief that indicates the difference between right and wrong. They are the laws that govern right from wrong and how we perceive them. So the question remains, are those values objective or subjective? What is an objective moral value? The key to understanding this is in the word “objective”. Notice the word “object” in the word “objective”. To say that something is objective means that it is an independent object that stands outside the speaker or subject. So an objective moral value is a law or belief about right or wrong that is independent of the person who holds it. Dr. William Lane Craig defined an objective moral value as something “that is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so.” (see William Lane Craig, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality,” Reasonable Faith, June 18, 2013, accessed June 18, 2013, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-indispensability-of-theological-meta-ethical-foundations-for-morality.)
Having defined an objective moral value, we come to the clincher: how do we know that moral values are objective rather than subjective? How do we know that they are independent of us rather than something that each of us decides for ourselves? There are two truths that lead us to conclude that objective morality does indeed exist.
First, we know morality is objective by intuition. We know it without prior evidence. We know it instinctively. There is a part of the human heart that understands that right and wrong exists, and that we ought to live by that standard. The human heart understands that certain actions are right, and certain actions are wrong. A good example of the intuitive understanding of right and wrong that each of us possesses is found in the Declaration of Independence. In the second paragraph of the Declaration Thomas Jefferson states, “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.” So what did Jefferson mean by this? He was saying that there are certain rights that all people possess by nature of a divine law, and that can not morally be taken away from them. But how did the writers and signers of the Declaration know these truths? Notice how Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Those moral truths were obvious to everyone. They knew them by their own nature. This is what philosophers call moral intuition. Moral intuition is “a moral judgement typically about a particular problem, a particular act, or a particular agent, though possibly also about a moral rule or principle, that is not the result of inferential reasoning. It is not inferred from ones’ other beliefs but arises on its own.” (seeJeff McMahan, “Moral Intuition” (philosophy paper discussing moral intuition), 2-2, accessed June 18, 2013, http://philosophy.rutgers.edu/dmdocuments/Moral%20Intuition%202nd%20edition.pdf.) This rule of moral intuition basically states that human beings have an understanding of certain moral truths, and that these truths are self evident. In other words, mankind knows, deep in their hearts, that certain actions are right, and others are wrong. Every single person on earth can point to something and say, “I know that that is wrong.” However, those statements would have no meaning apart from the objective moral law that binds all people, written deep in the heart.
The second means by which we conclude that morality is objective is by demonstrating that a belief in subjective moral value is practically self-defeating. It is important that we note that subjective moral values are not self-defeating in the sense that they are inherently illogical. They defeat themselves in a practical way. This is true because the belief in subjective moral values is impossible to live out consistently. To say that morality is subjective is to say that one is determining what is right and wrong for him individually. He sets the bar, and no universal right and wrong exist, only what he creates for himself. If this is really the case, then we have relegated morality to the level of personal taste. By holding the view that morality is subjective, saying that something is right or wrong amounts to nothing more than saying, “That action displeases me,” or, “I find that distasteful.” Once we realize this, it is obvious that this idea can never be fully lived out, at least not consistently. An illustration might help us to understand why this belief is inconsistent with the reality that we perceive around us. Suppose I was standing on a stage. As I stood there, I looked out over a vast audience of people, and I selected at random one newborn baby from the audience. I then proceeded to bring it up on stage, and set it on a table. The crowd is there to witness as I pull out a sword and cut the baby in half, killing it instantly. As a reader or an eyewitness of such an event, you would know intuitively that an action like that is wrong. But how? The only way we can know that this is wrong is if there exists an objective standard outside of us that determines that this is wrong. However, if morality is truly subjective, and each of us gets to determine right and wrong for ourselves, then you as a reader could never justifiably say that killing that baby is wrong. What if I had determined that it was right for me even if it was wrong for you? If morality is subjective, then there is nothing stopping me from determining that it is right to kill or torture babies for fun, or that the holocaust was right. I would be able to believe that, and since there is no universal standard of goodness, no one could tell me or anyone else that I was wrong. But I challenge you as a reader, look into your heart. Deep down you know that it is wrong. You know that killing babies, torturing people, murder, rape, etc. is wrong.
The existence of objective moral values is the only moral theory that explains the world around us. Objective moral values explain why you have an intuition inside your heart that killing infants is wrong. It explains moral intuition. Objective moral values are also the only theory that is possible to live out consistently in the world around us. If not, then the only other option before you, as a reader, is that moral values are made up. If that is true, then you have no other choice but to accept that killing babies is ok for some people if they determine that it is morally permissible for them. You could certainly never punish someone for that: at least not justifiably. Objective values can account for all of these truths.
Having established the existence of objective moral value, where do we go from here? What conclusions can this truth lead us to? Since moral values do exist, we need to know what causes them. Our conclusion can be stated as follows:
If objective moral values exist, then they must have a cause
Objective moral values do exist
Therefore, there is a cause for objective moral values
This conclusion, that there must be a cause sufficient to explain the existence of objective moral values will be the subject of our next article as we continue to ask ourselves, “Do you really need God to be good?”