We live in a world populated with self-evident, objective, transcendent moral laws. “It’s never OK to torture babies for fun” or (my new favorite from a blog reader) “It’s never OK to torture non-believers just because you don’t like them?” are two examples of such transcendent laws. How do we account for laws such as these? Their existence points to a reasonable inference: the existence of a Transcendent Moral Law Giver. But there are other alternatives typically offered by those who reject the existence of such a Being. Is God real? The insufficiency of the alternative explanations strengthens the argument for the existence of God:
Are Objective, Transcendent Moral Laws A Product of Genetic Evolution?
As one friendly skeptic said recently, “We share 99.999% of our physical traits with our fellow humans . . . so why would our mental traits not be similarly shared?” Are moral truths simply part of our genetic coding? There are good reasons to reject such an explanation. When someone claims self-evident moral truths are simply a matter of our genetic evolution, they are assuming the same evolutionary pathway for every people group. What are we to make of cultures that behave in a manner different than our own? How can we justly adjudicate between the myriad of people groups, all of whom have their own genetic evolutionary pathway? This form of emboldened relativism is powerless to judge any form of behavior, good or bad. In fact, how can we judge any behavior if it is so connected to our genetic nature? We don’t blame people for being brunettes or having blue eyes; if our genes are the cause of our moral understanding, what right do we have to blame people when they simply express genetic moral wiring different from our own? Perhaps most importantly, even if my skeptical friend is right and commonly accepted moral truths are merely a product of our genetic encoding, we still must account for the source of this encoding. DNA is information rich. As Stephen C. Myers observes in Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, there isn’t a single example in the history of the universe in which information has come from anything other than an intelligent source. If our genetic code contains information about moral truth, we still must ask the foundational question, what intelligent source provided this code? All codes require encoders.
Are Objective, Transcendent Moral Truths a Matter of Cultural Agreement?
If societies are the source of objective moral truths, what are we to do when two cultures disagree about these truths? How do we adjudicate between two competing views of a particular moral claim? If objective moral truths are simply a matter of “shared morality”, the societal majority rules; “might makes right”. In a world like this, anyone (or any group) holding the minority position in a particular moral argument is, by definition, immoral. In fact, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson made this clear in his early career as a prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials following World War II. When the German soldiers who committed atrocities in the Jewish prison camps were brought to trial to face criminal charges, the issue of moral relativity was tested directly. The lawyers for the German officers argued that these men should not be judged for actions that were actually morally acceptable in the nation of Germany at the time of the war. They argued their supervisors and culture encouraged this behavior; in fact, to do otherwise would defy the culture and ideology in which they lived. In their moral environment, this behavior was part of the “shared morality”. Jackson argued against such a view of moral relativism and said, “There is a law above the law.”
Are Objective, Transcendent Moral Truths a Consequence of “Human Flourishing”?
Sam Harris (author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values), argues we can establish the moral value of any particular action by simply evaluating its impact on human well-being (something Harris typically refers to as “human flourishing”). Harris likens the establishment of such truths to a game of chess. In any particular game, each player must decide how to move based on the resulting effect. If you are trying to win the game, some moves are “good” and some moves are “bad”; some will lead you to victory and some will lead you to defeat. “Good” and “bad” then, are evaluated based on whether or not they accomplish the goal of winning the game. Harris redefines “good” (in the context of human beings) as whatever supports or encourages the well-being of conscious creatures; if an action increases human well-being (human “flourishing”) it is “good”, if it decreases well-being, it is “bad”. What, however, do we mean when we talk about “flourishing”? It’s one thing to evaluate a behavior in terms of its impact on survival, and if we are honest with one another, this is really what drives Natural Selection. But Harris recognizes survival, as a singular goal, can lead to all kinds of morally condemnable misbehavior. Harris suggests the goal is something more; the goal is “flourishing”. Human flourishing comprises a particular quality of life; one in which we honor the rights of others and seek a certain kind of character in order to become a particular kind of human group that has maximized its potential. See the problem here? Harris has already imported moral values into his model, even as he seeks to explain where these values come from in the first place. One can hardly define the “maximization” of human wellbeing without asserting a number of moral values. What, beyond mere survival, achieves our “maximization” as humans? The minute we move from mere survival to a particular kind of “worthy” survival, we have to employ moral principles and ideas. Concepts of sacrifice, nobility and honor must be assumed foundationally, but these are not morally neutral notions. Human “flourishing” assumes a number of virtues and priorities (depending on who is defining it), and these values and characteristics precede the enterprise Harris seeks to describe. Harris cannot articulate the formation of moral truths without first assuming some of these truths to establish his definition of “flourishing”. He’s borrowing pre-existent, objective moral notions about worth, value and purpose, while holding a worldview that argues against any pre-existing moral notions.
Try as we might, the alternative explanations for objective, transcendent moral truths are desperately insufficient. The moral law transcends all of us, regardless of location on the planet or time in history. This law cannot simply be a matter of “shared morality” or “social convention;” it transcends and pre-dates every culture. As we think carefully and identify the transcendent moral laws governing our world, it might also be useful to think carefully about the transcendent author of these laws. Is God real? He must be, if the values we hold dear are anything more than a matter of personal opinion. Learn more about the scientific and philosophical evidence pointing to a Divine Creator in God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Apologetics at Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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