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Friday, December 19, 2008

Arguing God From Morality

FROM RICHARD SWINBURNE, EMERITUS NOLLOTH PROFESSOR OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: Almost all of us think that there are objective moral truths—about what is good or obligatory to do, or bad or wrong to do. For example, it is obligatory to feed one's children and wrong to commit genocide. It is (perhaps barring exceptional circumstances) wrong to tell lies and obligatory to keep a promise. We do disagree to some extent about what the moral truths are, but (apart from a few hardened skeptics) we all think that there are such truths. Many religious thinkers have claimed that unless there is a God, there can be no objective right or wrong. In this view, only the commands of God make actions morally obligatory or wrong; without God, it wouldn't be obligatory to keep a promise or wrong to tell a lie, but God's commandments make these things obligatory or wrong (as the case may be).
There are several difficulties with this view. First, of course, many other religious believers think that there are moral truths whether or not there is a God; for example, it would be wrong to break a promise whether or not God exists. Secondly, there is this problem: If breaking a promise wouldn't be wrong in a Godless world, why does God's command make any difference? And finally, religious believers claim it is good news that the God in charge of the universe is a good God. But if being good were just a matter of conforming to the will of God, it would be a trivial matter that God is good instead of great good news.
For these reasons, many religious thinkers (including Kant) as well as atheists have claimed that even if there is a God, God's commands cannot make any difference when it comes to what is right and wrong. But that, too, seems implausible because authorities other than God can impose obligations. When a caring parent tells a child to do something useful to help in the house, something that wouldn't otherwise be obligatory—to do the washing up, for example—it would normally be thought that the parent's command makes it obligatory for the child to do the washing up. And most people think that when the state issues a reasonable command—for example, to pay taxes of a certain amount— that imposes an obligation on citizens to pay those taxes. For these reasons, many thinkers have preferred an intermediate position. This position holds that some actions are good or obligatory whether or not God commands them, and among the principles of morality that hold independently of the will of God is the principle that we have an obligation to please our benefactors. Clearly, one obvious way to do this is to do what our benefactors tell us to do. God, being so much more the source of good to us than are our parents or the state, would have the right to impose far greater obligations on us than our parents or the state do. God can’t command us not to do what we are obliged to do for some other reason (for example, feed our children), but God can command us to do much else, and God's command would make these things obligatory.
So I suggest that although the commands of God can make actions right or wrong that would otherwise not be so, there cannot be a good argument for the existence of God from the mere fact of morality (that certain actions are objectively right or wrong). There may, however, be an argument of moderate strength for the existence of God from the fact that humans are aware of some of the moral truths that hold independently of God or anything else. Humans, the argument goes, have got beliefs about what is morally right or wrong, and at least some of these beliefs are true.
It can be argued that evolution by natural selection of random variations is unlikely to produce moral beliefs in humans. The fact that members of some society behave in an altruistic way (that is, care for each other) might give that society an advantage in the struggle for survival, but behaving in an altruistic way is not at all the same thing as having the moral belief that it is obligatory to do so. You can have moral beliefs without acting on them, and you can behave altruistically simply because you feel like it. But God has reason to give humans beliefs of this all-important nature: so they can choose whether to do right or wrong. So perhaps from the human awareness of moral truths there is an argument that (together with more powerful arguments) supports the case for the existence of God.

Richard Swinburne appears with J.P. Moreland, Francis Collins, Michael Tooley, Alan Leshner, and Michael Shermer in "Arguing God From Morality," the 15th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.