God, Evil, and MoralityCertain things that happen in the world can be properly described as “evil.” Genocide, infanticide, and rape are factually morally evil. When we assert that those things are evil we do not mean simply that we dislike them or that they make us uncomfortable and therefore we would rather they did not exist. On the contrary, we are claiming that they are objectively evil at all times, for everyone. If this is correct, what is the explanation for the existence of such moral intuitions? More specifically, is theism a better explanation for morality than naturalism? These metaethical questions about the source and nature of moral values and obligations will be the subject of this short study. In order to explore the available options some definitions may be in order:
Subjective. Subjective is that which pertains to a subject’s evaluation or estimation of it; a private opinion about something. In the treatment of this question, subjective is that which an individual believes for whatever personal reasons. It is a matter of personal preference, taste, or individual belief.
Objective. Objective is that which is independent of a certain subject; rather than expressing an opinion, it is seen as something actually describing a factual thing, independent of any subject or individual that may or may not agree with its claim. Objective is that which is true by its very nature, independently of what any individual may believe or prefer.
Naturalism. For the purposes of the present questions we will equate naturalism to non-theism. For naturalism, moral convictions whether subjective or objective do not have their source in God but rather in man’s own nature, however such a nature came about to its present state or condition.
Furthermore, we will assume that both theists and (at least some) non-theists recognize that objective moral values do exist and that things like considering child abuse as a moral evil are not subjective opinions dependent on individuals or societies but are factually, inescapably morally evil. The contention between theists and naturalist on this subject comes not from the actual existence of moral norms but on what the best explanation for morality is. It must be noted that the debate is not about whether someone must believe in God in order to live a moral life. Theists grant that non-theists can and many do live ethical lives. The issue is actually about the foundation of moral duties. The theist argues that, “moral epistemology must be anchored in the metaphysical resources of theism to provide the most plausible context to account for objective moral values.”* In the theist’s point of view the naturalist, who should be more in tune with nihilism but contends for morality does it without a dependable way to account for moral values and is living a life incompatible with her own worldview. Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, and other non-theists have agreed that in the absence of God moral facts are meaningless and non-existent. Where, then do those naturalists that disagree anchor their beliefs in objective moral properties? How do they justify moral accountability?
Christian Philosopher Paul Copan, in his essay “Ethics Needs God,” declares that theists base their belief in objective moral values on the fact that mankind was created in the image of God and was therefore endowed with “objective moral values, moral obligation, human dignity, and rights.” By contrast, the problem with naturalism is that all it can attempt to do is to describe human behavior and a psychology of that behavior which at the most gives us an “is” but does not serve as grounding for an “ought.” That is, it is descriptive rather than prescriptive.
How can the naturalist trust the impulses or moral instincts of a creature that evolved by chance, possesses no free will (or at most has only the illusion of free will) and is predetermined by its own genes and chemical reactions to act a certain way? One must remember that naturalistic evolution is survivalist, not a truth-seeking enterprise. Naturalism cannot account for things like self-awareness or consciousness (which plays a part in intentionality and choice) and reason (which gives humans the capacity for moral judgments). Some non-theistic philosophers have retreated to a less than ideal position regarding such issues to a type of “accidental true belief” which is a far cry from true knowledge (and thus from true objectivity). Finally, naturalism cannot account for free will neither for moral responsibility.
Going a step further, it can be argued that objective moral values exist only if God exists. In the absence of an all-good holy God morality is just a human convention that can be neither normative nor binding on all people at all times. This strongly suggests that theism is by far a superior explanation for morality than naturalism ever could.
* Paul Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” in Debating Christian Theism, Oxford University Press, 2013.