From the book: "I don't have enough Faith to be an Atheist"
Mother Teresa vs. Hitler
"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." —The Declaration of Independence
Is There a Standard ?
My friend Dave and I were just finishing dinner at a dockside restaurant in Portland, Maine, when the conversation turned to religion. "I don't think one religion can be exclusively true," Dave said. "But it seems like you, Frank, have found a center. You have found something that's true for you, and I think that's great."
Playing along with his premise that something can be true for one person but not another, I asked, "Dave, what's true for you? "What makes life meaningful for you?"
He said, "Making money and helping people!" Now Dave is a very successful businessman, so I pressed him a little bit more.
I said, "Dave, I know CEOs who have reached the pinnacle of business success. They've planned and achieved great things in their business life, but have planned nothing and achieved little in their personal lives. They're now facing retirement, and they're asking themselves, 'Now what?'"
Dave agreed and added, "Yeah, and I know that most of those CEOs have experienced nasty divorces, mostly because they ignored their families in pursuit of a buck. But I'm not like that. I will not sacrifice my family for money, and in my business I want to help people as well."
I commended him for his commitment to his family and his desire to help people, but questions still remained. "Why should we be faithful to our families?" Who said we should "help people?" Is "helping people" a universal moral obligation, or is it just true for you but not for me? And to what end should you help them: Financially? Emotionally? Physically? Spiritually?
I said, "Dave, if there's no objective standard, then life is nothing but a glorified Monopoly game. You can acquire lots of money and lots of property, but when the game is over, it's all going back in the box. Is that what life is all about?"
Uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, Dave quickly changed the subject. But his sense that he ought to "help people" was correct; he just had no way of justifying it. "Why did he think he should "help people"? Where did he get such an idea? And why do you and I, deep down, agree with him?
Stop and marinate on that point for a minute: Aren't you just like Dave? Don't you have this deep-seated sense of obligation that we all ought to "help people"? We all do. Why? And why do most human beings seem to have that same intuitive sense that they ought to do good and shun evil?
Behind the answers to those questions is more evidence for the theistic God. This evidence is not scientific—that's what we've seen in previous chapters—but moral in nature. Like the laws of logic and mathematics, this evidence is nonmaterial but it's just as real. The reason we believe we ought to do good rather than evil—the reason we, like Dave, believe we should "help people"—is because there's a Moral Law that has been written on our hearts. In other words, there is a "prescription" to do good that has been given to all of humanity.
Some call this moral prescription "conscience"; others call it "Natural Law"; still others (like our Founding Fathers) refer to it as "Nature's Law." We refer to it as "The Moral Law." But whatever you call it, the fact that a moral standard has been prescribed on the minds of all human beings points to a Moral Law Prescriber. Every prescription has a prescriber. The Moral Law is no different. Someone must have given us these moral obligations.
This Moral Law is our third argument for the existence of a theistic God (after the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments). It goes like this:
Every law has a law giver.
There is a Moral Law.
Therefore, there is a Moral Law Giver.
If the first and second premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows. Of course, every law has a law giver. There can be no legislation unless there's a legislature. Moreover, if there are moral obligations, there must be someone to be obligated to.
But is it really true that there is a Moral Law? Our Founding Fathers thought so. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "Nature's Law" is "self-evident." You don't use reason to discover it, you just know it. Perhaps that's why my friend Dave hit a roadblock in his thinking. He knew "helping people" was the right thing to do, but he couldn't explain why without appealing to a standard outside himself. Without an objective standard of meaning and morality, then life is meaningless and there's nothing absolutely right or wrong. Everything is merely a matter of opinion.
When we say the Moral Law exists, we mean that all people are impressed with a fundamental sense of right and wrong. Everyone knows, for example, that love is superior to hate and that courage is better than cowardice. University of Texas at Austin professor J. Budziszewski writes, "Everyone knows certain principles. There is no land where murder is virtue and gratitude vice."1 C. S. Lewis, who has written profoundly on this topic in his classic work Mere Christianity, put it this way: "Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five." 2
In other words, everyone knows there are absolute moral obligations. An absolute moral obligation is something that is binding on all people, at all times, in all places. And an absolute Moral Law implies an absolute Moral Law Giver.
Now this does not mean that every moral issue has easily recognizable answers or that some people don't deny that absolute morality exists. There are difficult problems in morality, and people suppress and deny the Moral Law every day. It simply means that there are basic principles of right and wrong that everyone knows, whether they will admit them or not. Budziszewski calls this basic knowledge of right and wrong "what we can't not know," in his book by that title.3
We can't not know, for example, that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings for no reason. Some people may deny it and commit murder anyway, but deep in their hearts they know murder is wrong. Even serial killers know murder is wrong—they just may not feel remorse. 4 And like all absolute moral laws, murder is wrong for everyone, everywhere: in America, India, Zimbabwe, and in every other country, now and forever. That's what the Moral Law tells every human heart.
How Do We Know the Moral Law Exists?
There are many reasons we know the Moral Law exists, and we will present and discuss eight of them. Some of these reasons overlap one another, but we will discuss them in this order:
The Moral Law is undeniable.
We know it by our reactions.
It is the basis of human rights.
It is the unchanging standard of justice.
It defines a real difference between moral positions (e.g., Mother Teresa vs. Hitler).
Since we know what's absolutely wrong, there must be an absolute standard of rightness.
The Moral Law is the grounds for political and social dissent.
If there were no Moral Law, then we wouldn't make excuses for violating it.
1. The Moral Law Is Undeniable—Relativists usually make two primary truth claims: 1) there is no absolute truth; and 2) there are no absolute moral values. The Road Runner tactic will help you defuse their first claim: if there really is no absolute truth, then their absolute claim that "there is no absolute truth" can't be true. You can see that the relativist's statement is irrational because it affirms exactly what he's trying to deny. Even Joseph Fletcher, the father of modern situation ethics, fell into this trap. In his book Situation Ethics, Fletcher insisted that "the situationist avoids words like 'never' and 'perfect' and 'always' ... as he avoids the plague, as he avoids 'absolutely.'" 5 Of course, this is tantamount to claiming that "One should never say 'never,'" or "We should always avoid using the word 'always.'" But those very statements do not avoid what they say we must avoid. Relativists are absolutely sure that there are no absolutes.
Like absolute truth, absolute values are also undeniable. While the claim "There are no absolute values" is not self-defeating, the existence of absolute values is practically undeniable. For the person who denies all values, values his right to deny them. Further, he wants everyone to value him as a person, even while he denies that there are values for all persons. This was illustrated clearly a number of years ago when I (Norm) was speaking to a group of affluent, well-educated Chicago suburbanites. After I suggested there are such things as objective moral values to which we all have an obligation, one lady stood and protested loudly, "There are no real values. It's all a matter of taste or opinion!" I resisted the temptation to make my point by shouting, "Sit down and shut up, you egghead. Who wants to hear your opinion?!" Of course, if I had been so rude and discourteous, she would have rightly complained that I had violated her right to her opinion and her right to express it. To which I could have replied, "You have no such right—you just told me such rights don't exist!"
Her complaint would have proved that she actually did believe in a real absolute value—-she valued her right to say that there are no absolute values. In other words, even those who deny all values nevertheless value their right to make that denial. And therein lies the inconsistency. Moral values are practically undeniable.
2. Our Reactions Help Us Discover the Moral Law (Right from Wrong)—In the above scenario, the lady's reaction would have reminded her that there are absolute moral values. A professor at a major university in Indiana gave one of his relativistic students the same experience not long ago. The professor, who was teaching a class in ethics, assigned a term paper to his students. He told the students to write on any ethical topic of their choice, requiring each student only to properly back up his or her thesis with reasons and documentation.
One student, an atheist, wrote eloquently on the topic of moral relativism. He argued, "All morals are relative; there is no absolute standard of justice or rightness; it's all a matter of opinion; you like chocolate, I like vanilla," and so on. His paper provided both his reasons and his documentation. It was the right length, on time, and stylishly presented in a handsome blue folder.
After the professor read the entire paper, he wrote on the front cover, "F, I don't like blue folders!" When the student got the paper back he was enraged. He stormed into the professor's office and protested, "'F! I don't like blue folders!' That's not fair! That's not right! That's not just! You didn't grade the paper on its merits!"
Raising his hand to quiet the bombastic student, the professor calmly retorted, "Wait a minute. Hold on. I read a lot of papers. Let me see... wasn't your paper the one that said there is no such thing as fairness, rightness, and justice?"
"Yes," the student answered.
"Then what's this you say about me not being fair, right, and just? " the professor asked. "Didn't your paper argue that it's all a matter of taste? You like chocolate,! like vanilla?"
The student replied, "Yes, that's my view."
"Fine, then," the professor responded. "I don't like blue. You get an F!"
Suddenly the lightbulb went on in the student's head. He realized he really did believe in moral absolutes. He at least believed in justice. After all, he was charging his professor with injustice for giving him an F simply because of the color of the folder. That simple fact defeated his entire case for relativism.
The moral of the story is that there are absolute morals. And if you really want to get relativists to admit it, all you need to do is treat them unfairly. Their reactions will reveal the Moral Law written on their hearts and minds. Here, the student realized there is an objective standard of rightness by how he reacted to the professor's treatment of him. In the same way, I may not think stealing is wrong when I steal from you. But watch how morally outraged I get when you steal from me.
Our reactions also indicate that relativism is ultimately unlivable. People may claim they are relativists, but they don't want their spouses, for example, to live like sexual relativists. They don't want their spouses to be only relatively faithful. Nearly every male relativist expects his wife to live as if adultery were absolutely wrong, and would react quite negatively if she lived out relativism by committing adultery. And even if there are a few relativists who wouldn't object to adultery, do you think they would accept the morality of murder or rape if someone wanted to kill or rape them? Of course not. Relativism contradicts our reactions and our common sense.
Reactions even help us identify right and wrong as a nation. When Muslim terrorists flew our planes into our buildings with our innocent loved ones in them, our emotional reaction fit the immensity of the crime. Our reaction reinforced the truth that the act was absolutely wrong. Some may say, "But Bin Laden and his fellow criminals thought the act was morally right." That's partially because they were not on the receiving end of the crime. How do you think Bin Laden would have reacted if we had flown his planes into his buildings with his innocent loved ones in them? He would have known immediately that such an act was undeniably wrong.
So the Moral Law is not always apparent from our actions, as evidenced by the terrible things human beings do to one another. But it is brightly revealed in our reactions-—-what we do when we personally are treated unfairly. In other words, the Moral Law is not always the standard by which we treat others, but it is nearly always the standard by which we expect others to treat us. It does not describe how we actually behave, but rather it prescribes how we ought to behave.
3. Without the Moral Law, There Would Be No Human Rights
The United States of America was established by the belief in the Moral Law and God-given human rights. Thomas Jefferson wrote, in the Declaration of Independence:
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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed (emphasis added).
Notice the phrase, "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." In other words, the Founding Fathers believed that human rights are God-given, and, as such, they are universal and absolute—they are the rights of all people, in all places, at all times, regardless of their nationality or religion.
Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers recognized that there was a higher authority-—-the "Creator"—to whom they could appeal to establish objective moral grounds for their independence. Had they begun the Declaration with, "We hold these opinions as our own..." (rather than "self-evident" "truths"), they wouldn't have expressed an objective moral justification for their Declaration of Independence. It simply would have been their opinion against that of King George. So the Founders appealed to the "Creator" because they believed his Moral Law was the ultimate standard of right and wrong that would justify their cause. And their cause was to end the rule of King George in the American colonies. They were convinced that George's rule needed to be ended because he was violating the basic human rights of the colonists.
In a sense, the Founding Fathers were in the same position as were the Allied countries after World War II. When the Nazi war criminals were brought to trial in Nuremburg, they were convicted of violating basic human rights as denned by the Moral Law (which is manifested in international law). This is the law that all people inherently understand and to which all nations are subject. If there were no such international morality that transcended the laws of the secular German government, then the Allies would have had no grounds to condemn the Nazis. In other words, we couldn't have said that the Nazis were absolutely wrong unless we knew what was absolutely right. But we do know they were absolutely wrong, so the Moral Law must exist.
4. Without the Moral Law, We Couldn't Know Justice or Injustice—
Perhaps the most popular argument against the existence of God is the presence and persistence of evil in the world. If there really is a good and just God, then why does he allow bad things to happen to good people? Atheists have long asserted that it would be more logical to believe that this God doesn't exist than to try and explain how evil and God can coexist.
C. S. Lewis was one such atheist. He believed that all of the injustice in the world confirmed his atheism. That is, until he thought about how he knew the world was unjust: He wrote, "[As an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?" 6 This realization led Lewis out of atheism and ultimately to Christianity.
Lewis, like you and me, can only detect injustice because there's an unchanging standard of justice written on our hearts. Indeed, you can't know what is evil unless you know what is good. And you can't know what is good unless there is an unchanging standard of good outside yourself. Without that objective standard, any objection to evil is nothing but your personal opinion.
I (Norm) love debating Jewish atheists. Why? Because I've never met a Jewish person who believes that the Holocaust was just a matter of opinion. They all believe it was really wrong, regardless of what anyone thinks about it. During one such debate with a Jewish atheist, I asked my opponent, "On what grounds do you say the Holocaust was wrong?" He said, "By my own benign-moral feeling."
What else could he say? Unless he was going to admit that there was an objective Moral Law—but that would mean admitting God—he had no objective grounds to oppose the Holocaust. His opposition carried no more weight than his own personal opinion.
But we all know the moral status of the Holocaust is not just a matter of opinion. Your reaction to a comment on the Holocaust should give you a hint that there is something really wrong with murdering innocent people. After all, you don't have the same reaction to someone who says "that meal was wonderful!" when he also says "the Holocaust was wonderful!" You intuitively know that someone's taste for food is not the same as his taste for evil. There is a real moral difference between a meal and murder-—one is a mere preference and the other is a true injustice. Your reactions to those comments help you realize that.
We'll discuss more about the coexistence of evil and God in appendix 1. For now the main point is this: if there were no Moral Law, then we wouldn't be able to detect evil or injustice of any kind. Without justice, injustice is meaningless. Likewise, unless there's an unchanging standard of good, there is no such thing as objective evil. But since we all know that evil exists, then so does the Moral Law.
5. Without the Moral Law, There Would Be No Way to Measure Moral Differences—Consider the two maps of Scotland in figure 7.1.
Which is the better map? How could you tell which is the better map? The only way to tell is to see what the real Scotland looks like. In other words, you would have to compare both maps to a real unchanging place called Scotland. If Scotland does not exist, then the maps are meaningless. But since it does, then we can see that Map A is the better map because it's closer to the unchanging standard—the real Scotland.
Maps of Scotland
This is exactly what we do when we evaluate the behavior of Mother Teresa against that of Hitler. We appeal to an absolute unchanging standard beyond both of them. That standard is the Moral Law. C. S. Lews put it this way:
The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people's ideas get nearer to that real Right than others. Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something—some Real Morality—for them to be true about.7
If the Moral Law doesn't exist, then there's no moral difference between the behavior of Mother Teresa and that of Hitler. Likewise, statements like "Murder is evil," "Racism is wrong," or "You shouldn't abuse children" have no objective meaning. They're just someone's opinion, on a par with "chocolate tastes better than vanilla." In fact, without the Moral Law, simple value-laden terms such as "good," "bad," "better," and "worse" would have no objective meaning when used in a moral sense. But we know they do have meaning. For example, when we say "society is getting better" or "society is getting worse," we are comparing society to some moral standard beyond ourselves. That standard is the Moral Law that's written on our hearts.
In short, to believe in moral relativism is to argue that there are no real moral differences between Mother Teresa and Hitler, freedom and slavery, equality and racism, care and abuse, love and hate, or life and murder. We all know that such conclusions are absurd. So moral relativism must be false. If moral relativism is false, then an objective Moral Law exists.
6. Without the Moral Law, You Couldn't Know What Was Right or Wrong—When Alan Dershowitz, a self-described agnostic, debated Alan Keyes, who is Roman Catholic, in September 2000 on the subject of religion in the public square, Dershowitz was asked by an audience member, "What makes something right?"
Dershowitz praised the question and then said, "We know what evil is. We have seen it," as he cited obvious examples of evil, such as the Holocaust and the Crusades. Then Dershowitz peered at the audience, raised his voice, and emphatically declared, "I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S RIGHT! I know what's WRONG!"
He then began to almost scold the audience: "But I have something else to tell you, folks. YOU don't know what's right! The minute you think you know what's right, the minute you think you have the answer to what's right, you have lost a very precious aspect of growing and developing. I don't expect ever to know precisely what's right, but I expect to devote the rest of my life trying to find it out." 8 With that, some in the audience applauded.
Keyes was not given the opportunity to respond to Dershowitz's answer. If he had, he could have unleashed the Road Runner tactic to expose the self-defeating nature of Dershowitz's argument—namely, by asking Dershowitz, "How do you know what's wrong unless you know what's right?" Indeed, you cannot know that 5 is the wrong answer to 2+2, unless you have some idea of what the right answer is! In the same way, Dershowitz can't know what's morally wrong unless he has some idea of what's morally right.
During the debate, Dershowitz had no problem railing against things he thought were morally wrong (i.e., anti-sodomy laws, anti-abortion laws, racism, slavery, the moral code of the Boy Scouts, mixing church and state, etc.). But in claiming certain things are wrong, he was, by default, affirming that certain things are right. Every negation implies an affirmation. To say that restricting abortion is wrong (the negation), Dershowitz must know that women have a moral right to abortion (the affirmation). But without the Moral Law, Dershowitz can't justify that or any other moral position. It's all just his own opinion.
It is also the height of error and arrogance to claim that no one in the audience knows what's right. Christians are often criticized for stating that they "have the truth," but here was Dershowitz stating that he has the truth that no one has the truth. In order to know that no one has the truth, Dershowitz would have to know the truth himself.
Some relativists are famous for this kind self-defeating arrogance. They claim there is no truth, but then make truth claims of their own. They claim they don't know what is right, but then claim their own political causes are right. They deny the Moral Law in one sentence and then assume it in the next.
7. Without the Moral Law, There Are No Moral Grounds for Political or Social Dissent—Political liberals like Alan Dershowitz and many in Hollywood are famous for their moral opposition to war, anti-abortion laws, anti-sodomy laws, tax cuts, and just about anything the "religious right" might support. The problem for them is that many of them are atheists who thereby have no objective moral grounds for the positions they vocally support. For if there is no Moral Law, then no position on any moral issue is objectively right or wrong—including the positions taken by atheists.
Without a Moral Law, there would be nothing objectively wrong with Christians or Muslims forcibly imposing their religion on atheists. There would be nothing wrong with outlawing atheism, confiscating the property of atheists, and giving it to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. There would be nothing wrong with gay-bashing, racism, or imperialistic wars. Nor would there be anything wrong with prohibiting abortion, birth control, and even sex between consenting adults! In other words, without the Moral Law, atheists have no moral grounds to argue for their pet political causes. There is no right to an abortion, homosexual sex, or any of their other political sacraments because in a nontheistic world there are no rights. Unless atheists claim that there is a God and that his Moral Law condones or commands these activities, then their positions are nothing more than their own subjective preferences. And no one is under any moral obligation to agree with mere preferences or to allow atheists to legislatively impose them on the rest of us. 9
So by rebelling against the Moral Law, atheists have, ironically, undermined their grounds for rebelling against anything. In fact, without the Moral Law, no one has any objective grounds for being for or against anything! But since we all know that issues involving life and liberty are more than mere preferences—that they involve real moral rights-—-then the Moral Law exists.
8. If There Were No Moral Law, Then We Wouldn't Make Excuses for Violating It—Did you ever notice that people make excuses for immoral behavior? Making excuses is a tacit admission that the Moral Law exists. Why make excuses if no behavior is actually immoral?
Even the number one virtue of our largely immoral culture—-tolerance—reveals the Moral Law, because tolerance itself is a moral principle. If there is no Moral Law, then why should anyone be tolerant? Actually, the Moral Law calls us to go beyond tolerance to love. Tolerance is too weak—tolerance says, hold your nose and put up with them. Love says, reach out and help them. Tolerating evil is unloving, but that's what many in our culture want us to do.
Moreover, the plea to be tolerant is a tacit admission that the behavior to be tolerated is wrong. Why? Because you don't need to plead with people to tolerate good behavior, only bad. No one needs to be talked into tolerating the behavior of Mother Teresa, only the behavior of some relativists. Likewise, no one makes excuses for acting like Mother Teresa. We only make excuses when we act against the Moral Law. We wouldn't do so if it didn't exist.
Absolute vs. Relative: Why the Confusion?
If there really is an absolute Moral Law as we have argued, then why do so many believe that morality is relative? And why do so many people appear to have different values? Rationally, the reason lies with the failure to make proper distinctions. Let's take a look at those distinctions to clear up the areas of confusion:
Confusion #1—Absolute Morals vs. Changing Behavior
A common mistake of relativists is to confuse behavior with, value. That is, they confuse what is with what ought to be. "What people do is subject to change, but what they ought to do is not. This is the difference between sociology and morality. Sociology is descriptive; morality is prescriptive.
In other words, relativists often confuse the changing behavioral situation with the unchanging moral duty. For example, when discussing a moral topic like premarital sex or cohabitation, you often hear people in support of it say something like, "Get with it, this is the twenty-first century! " as if current behaviors dictate what's right and wrong. To illustrate the absurdity of the relativist's reasoning, you need only to turn the discussion to a more serious moral issue like murder, which also occurs much more frequently in America today than it did fifty years ago. How many relativists would speak in support of murder by asking us to "Get with it, this is the twenty-first century!"? That's where their reasoning takes them when they confuse what people do with what they ought to do.
Another aspect of the is-ought fallacy manifests itself when people suggest that there is no Moral Law because people don't obey it. Of course everyone disobeys the Moral Law to some degree—-from telling white lies to murder. But that doesn't mean there is no unchanging Moral Law; it simply means that, we all violate it. Everyone makes mathematical mistakes too, but that doesn't mean there are no unchanging rules of mathematics.
Confusion #2—Absolute Morals vs. Changing Perceptions of the Facts
Another confusion is made between the existence of an absolute moral value itself and the understanding of the facts used in applying that value. For example, as C. S. Lewis has noted, in the late 1700s witches were sentenced as murderers, but now they are not.10 A relativist might argue, "See! Our moral values have changed because we no longer seek to kill witches. Morality is relative to time and culture."
But the relativist's claim is incorrect. What has changed is not the moral principle that murder is wrong but the perception or factual understanding of whether "witches" can really murder people by their curses. People no longer believe they can. Hence, people no longer consider them murderers. In other words, the perception of a moral situation is relative (whether witches are really murderers), but the moral values involved in the situation are not (murder has always been and always will be wrong).
Failure to make this distinction also leads people to believe that cultural differences reflect essential differences in core moral values. For example, some believe that since Hindus revere cows and Americans eat them, there's an essential difference between the moral values of Americans and Hindus. But the reason people in India consider cows sacred has nothing to do with a core moral value-—-it has to do with their religious belief in reincarnation. Indians believe that cows may possess the souls of deceased human beings, so they won't eat them. In the United States, we do not believe that the souls of our deceased relatives may be in a cow, so we freely eat cows. In the final analysis, what appears to be a moral difference is actually an agreement—we both believe it's wrong to eat Grandma! The core moral value that it's wrong to eat Grandma is considered absolute by people in both cultures. They only disagree on whether Grandma's soul is in the cow! 11 They have different perceptions of the facts pertaining to the moral value, but fundamentally agree that the moral value must be upheld.
Confusion #3—Absolute Morals vs. Applying Them to Particular Situations
As we have seen, people know right from wrong best by their reactions rather than by their actions. When people are the victims of bad behavior, they have no trouble understanding that the behavior is absolutely wrong. Yet even if two victims wind up disagreeing over the morality of a particular act, this does not mean morality is relative. An absolute Moral Law can exist even if people fail to know the right thing to do in a particular situation.
Consider the moral dilemma often used by university professors to get their students to believe in relativism: there are five people trying to survive on a life raft designed for only four. If one person isn't thrown overboard, then everyone will die. Students labor over the dilemma, come to different conclusions, and then conclude their disagreement proves that morality must be relative.
But the dilemma actually proves the opposite—that morality is absolute. How? Because there would be no dilemma if morality were relative! If morality were relative and there were no absolute right to life, you'd say, "It doesn't matter what happens! Throw everyone overboard! Who cares?" The very reason we struggle with the dilemma is because we know how valuable life is.
While people may get morality wrong in complicated situations, they don't get it wrong on the basics. For example, everyone knows murder is wrong. Hitler knew it. That's why he had to dehumanize the Jews in order to rationalize killing them. Even cannibals appear to know that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. It may be that cannibals don't think that the people in other tribes are human. But chances are they do. Otherwise, as J. Budziszewski observes, why do cannibals "perform elaborate expiatory rituals before [they] take their lives?"12 They wouldn't perform these rituals unless they thought there was something wrong with what they were about to do.
So the basics are clear, even if some difficult problems are not. Moreover, the fact that there are difficult problems in morality doesn't disprove the existence of objective moral laws any more than difficult problems in science disprove the existence of objective natural laws. Scientists don't deny that an objective world exists when they encounter a difficult problem in the natural world (i.e., when they have trouble knowing the answer). And we shouldn't deny that morality exists just because we have trouble knowing the answer in a few difficult situations.
There are easy and hard problems in morality just as there are in science. Answering a simple scientific problem such as "Why do objects fall to the ground?" proves that at least one natural law or force exists (i.e., gravity). Likewise, truthfully answering a simple moral question such as "Is murder justified?" proves that at least one law of morality exists (i.e., don't murder). If just one moral obligation exists (such as don't murder, or don't rape, or don't torture babies), then the Moral Law exists. If the Moral Law exists, then so does the Moral Law Giver.
Confusion #4—An Absolute Command (What) vs. a Relative Culture (How)
Another important difference, often overlooked by moral relativists, is between the absolute nature of the moral command and the relative way in which that command is manifested in different cultures. For example, all cultures have some form of greeting, which is an expression of love and respect. However, cultures differ widely on just what that greeting is. In some it is a kiss; in others it is a hug; and in still others it is a handshake or a bow. What should be done is common to all cultures, but how it should be done differs. Failure to make this distinction misleads many to believe that because people have different practices they have different values. The moral value is absolute, but how it is practiced is relative.
Confusion #5—Absolute Morals vs. Moral Disagreements
Relativists often point to the controversial issue of abortion to demonstrate that morality is relative. Some think abortion is acceptable while others think it's murder. But just because there are different opinions about abortion doesn't mean morality is relative.
In fact, instead of providing an example of relative moral values, the entire abortion controversy exists because each side defends what they think is an absolute moral value-—-protecting life and allowing liberty (i.e., allowing a woman to "control her own body"). The controversy is over which value applies (or takes precedence) in the issue of abortion.13 If the unborn were not human beings, then the pro-liberty value should be applied in legislation. But since the unborn are human beings, the pro-life value should be applied in legislation because a person's right to life supersedes another person's right to individual liberty. (The baby is not just part of the woman's body; it has its own body with its own unique genetic code, its own blood type and gender.) Even if there were doubt as to when life begins, the benefit of the doubt should be given to protecting life—reasonable people don't shoot unless they're absolutely sure they won't kill an innocent human being.
Recall that our reaction to a particular practice reveals what we really think about its morality. Ronald Reagan once quipped, "I've noticed all those in favor of abortion are already born." Indeed, all pro-abortionists would become pro-life immediately if they found themselves back in the womb. Their reaction to the possibility of being killed would remind them that abortion really is wrong. Of course, most people deep in their hearts know an unborn child is a human being, and therefore know that abortion is wrong. Even some pro-abortion activists are finally admitting as much.14 So in the end, this moral disagreement is not because morality is relative or because the Moral Law isn't clear. This moral disagreement exists because some people are suppressing the Moral Law in order justify what they want to do. In other words, support for abortion is more a matter of the will than of the mind. (For a more detailed discussion of this and other moral topics, see our book Legislating Morality.15)
Confusion #6—Absolute Ends (Values) vs. Relative Means
Often moral relativists confuse the end (the value itself) with the means to attaining that end. Several political disputes are of this sort. On some issues (certainly not all), liberals and conservatives want the same things-—-the same ends. They just disagree on the best means to attain them.
For example, regarding the poor, liberals believe the best way to help is through government assistance. But since conservatives think such assistance creates dependency, they would rather stimulate economic opportunity so the poor can help themselves. Notice that the end is the same (assist the poor), but the means are different. Likewise, both militarists and pacifists desire peace (the end); they simply disagree as to whether a strong military is the best means to attain this peace. They both agree on the absolute end; they just disagree on the relative means to achieve it.
The Moral Law: What Do Darwinists Say?
So the evidence for the Moral Law is sound, and objections to it miss the mark. How then do Darwinists deal with the question of morality? Actually, most Darwinists avoid the subject completely. Why? Because it's not easy to explain how there can be objective right and wrong (which even Darwinists know in their hearts) unless there exists a Moral Law Giver.
Darwinist Edward O. Wilson is a notable exception. He claims that our sense of morality has evolved in the same way we ourselves have evolved—by natural selection. While he admits that "very little progress has been made in the biological exploration of the moral sentiments," Wilson asserts that the biological process of people passing their genes on to their offspring "through thousands of generations inevitably gave rise to moral sentiments."16 In other words, morality is materially and genetically determined. It's based on inherited feelings or instincts, not on an objective standard of right and wrong. We have already seen the inadequacy of natural selection to explain new life forms (chapter 6). As we're about to see, natural selection is also inadequate to explain "moral sentiments" within those new life forms.
First, Darwinism asserts that only materials exist, but materials don't have morality. How much does hate weigh? Is there an atom for love? What's the chemical composition of the murder molecule? These questions are meaningless because physical particles are not responsible for morality. If materials are solely responsible for morality, then Hitler had no real moral responsibility for what he did—he just had bad molecules. This is nonsense, and everyone knows it. Human thoughts and transcendent moral laws are not material things any more than the laws of logic and mathematics are material things. They are immaterial entities that cannot be weighed or physically measured. As a result, they can't be explained in material terms by natural selection or any other atheistic means.
Second, morality cannot be merely an instinct as Wilson suggests because: 1) we have competing instincts, and 2) something else often tells us to ignore the stronger instinct in order to do something more noble. For example, if you hear somebody who is being mugged calling for help, your stronger instinct may be to stay safe and not "get involved." Your weaker instinct (if we may call it that) might be to help.
As C. S. Lewis puts it, But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.17
Third, Wilson says that social morals have evolved because those "cooperative" morals helped humans survive together. But this assumes an end—-survival—for evolution, when Darwinism, by definition, has no end because it is a nonintelligent process. And even if survival is granted as the end, Darwinists cannot explain why people knowingly engage in self-destructive behavior (i.e., smoking, chinking, drugs, suicide, etc.). Nor can Darwinists explain why people often subvert their own survival instincts to help others, sometimes to the point of their own deaths.18 We all know that there are nobler ends than mere survival: soldiers sacrifice themselves for their country, parents for their children, and, if Christianity is true, God sacrificed his Son for us.
Fourth, Wilson and other Darwinists assume that survival is a "good" thing, but there is no real good without the objective Moral Law. In fact, this is the problem with pragmatic and utilitarian ethical systems that say "do what works" or "do whatever brings the greatest good." Do what works toward whose ends-—Mother Teresa's or Hitler's? Do whatever brings the greatest good by whose definition of good—Mother Teresa's or Hitler's? Such ethical systems must smuggle in the Moral Law to define what ends we should work toward and what really is the greatest "good."
Fifth, Darwinists confuse how one comes to know the Moral Law with the existence of the Moral Law. Even if we come to know some of our "moral sentiments" because of genetic and/or environmental factors, that doesn't mean there is no objective Moral Law outside ourselves.
This came up in the debate between Peter Atkins and William Lane Craig. Atkins claimed morality evolved from genetics and "our massive brains." Craig correctly responded, "At best that would show how moral values are discovered, but it would not show that those values are invented," Indeed, I may inherit a capacity for math and learn the multiplication tables from my mother, but the laws of mathematics exist regardless of how I come to know them. Likewise, morality exists independently of how we come to know it.
Finally, Darwinists cannot explain why anyone should obey any biologically derived "moral sentiment." Why shouldn't people murder, rape, and steal to get what they want if there is nothing beyond this world? Why should the powerful "cooperate" with the weaker when the powerful can survive longer by exploiting the weaker? After all, history is replete with criminals and dictators who have lengthened their own survival precisely because they have disobeyed all "moral sentiments" in their repression and elimination of their opponents.
Ideas Have Consequences
If the Darwinists are right that morality has a natural source, then morality is not objective or absolute. For if there is no God and humans have evolved from the slime, then we have no higher moral status than slime because there is nothing beyond us to instill us with objective morality or dignity.
The implications of this have not been lost on Darwinists and their followers. In fact, Adolf Hitler used Darwin's theory as philosophical justification for the Holocaust. In his 1924 book Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), he wrote:
If nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one; because in such cases all her efforts, throughout hundreds of thousands of years, to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile. But such a preservation goes hand-in-hand with the inexorable law that it is the strongest and the best who must triumph and that they have the right to endure. He who would live must fight. He who does not wish to fight in this world, where permanent struggle is the law of life, has not the right to exist.19
Hitler, like other Darwinists, illegitimately personifies nature by attributing will to it (i.e., "nature does not wish"). But his main point is that there are superior races and inferior races, and the Jews, being an inferior race, have no right to exist if they don't want to fight. In other words, racism and then genocide is the logical outworking of Darwinism. On the other hand, love and then self-sacrifice is the logical outworking of Christianity. Ideas have consequences.
The racism associated with evolution was exposed during the famous 1925 Scopes Trial. The high school biology textbook that occasioned the trial spoke of five races of man, and concluded that the "Caucasians" are the "highest type of all." 20 This, of course, directly contradicts biblical teaching (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26, 29; Gal. 3:28). It also contradicts what is affirmed by the Declaration of Independence ("all men are created equal").
In more recent times, Princeton professor and Darwinist Peter Singer has used Darwinism to assert that "the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee. "21 Yes, you read that correctly.
What are the consequences of Singer's outrageous Darwinian ideas? He believes that parents should be able to kill their newborn infants until they are 28 days of age! These beliefs are perfectly consistent with Darwinism. If we all came from slime, then we have no grounds to say that humans are morally any better than any other species. The only question is, why limit infanticide at 28 days, or, for that matter, 28 months or 28 years? If there is no Moral Law Giver, then there's nothing wrong with murder at any age! Of course, Darwinists such as Singer might reject this conclusion, but they have no objective grounds for disagreeing unless they can appeal to a standard beyond themselves—a Moral Law Giver.
James Rachels, author of Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, defends the Darwinian view that the human species has no more inherent value than any other species. Speaking of retarded people, Rachels writes:
What are we to say about them? The natural conclusion, according to the doctrine we are considering [Darwinism], would be that their status is that of mere animals. And perhaps we should go on to conclude that they may be used as non-human animals are used-—-perhaps as laboratory subjects, or as food? 22
As horrific as that would be—using retarded people as lab rats or for food—Darwinists can give no moral reason why we ought not use any human being in that fashion. Nazi-like experiments cannot be condemned by Darwinists, because there is no objective moral standard in a Darwinian world.
Two other Darwinists recently wrote a book asserting that rape is a natural consequence of evolution. 23 According to authors Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, rape is "a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage," just like "the leopard's spots and the giraffe's elongated neck." 24
Shocking as they are, these Darwinian conclusions about murder and rape should come as no surprise to anyone who understands the moral implications of Darwinism. Why? Because according to Darwinists, all behaviors are genetically determined. While some Darwinists might disagree with the implication that murder and rape are not wrong (precisely because the Moral Law speaks to them through their consciences), those conclusions are the inexorable result of their worldview. For if only material things exist, then murder and rape are nothing more than the results of chemical reactions in a criminal's brain brought about by natural selection. Moreover, murder and rape can't be objectively wrong (i.e., against the Moral Law) because there are no laws if only chemicals exist. Objective moral laws require a transcendent Law-Giver, but the Darwinian worldview has ruled him out in advance. So consistent Darwinists can only consider murder and rape as personal dislikes, not real moral wrongs.
To understand what's behind the Darwinist's explanation of morality, we need to distinguish between an assertion and an argument. An assertion merely states a conclusion; an argument, on the other hand, states the conclusion and then supports it with evidence. Darwinists make assertions, not arguments. There is no empirical or forensic evidence that natural selection can account for new life forms, much less morality. Darwinists simply assert that morals have evolved naturally because they believe man has evolved naturally. And they believe man has evolved naturally, not because they have evidence for such a belief, but because they've ruled out intelligent causes in advance. So the Darwinian explanation for morality turns out to be just another "just-so" story based on circular reasoning and false philosophical presuppositions.
Summary and Conclusion
When we conduct our seminar, "The Twelve Points That Show Christianity Is True," the following two statements about morality immediately capture the attention of the audience:
If there is no God, then what Hitler did was just a matter of opinion! and if at least one thing is really morally wrong-—-like it's wrong to torture babies, or it's wrong to intentionally fly planes into buildings with innocent people in them—then God exists.
These statements help people realize that, without an objective source of morality, all so-called moral issues are nothing but personal preference. Hitler liked killing people, and Mother Teresa liked helping them. Unless there's a standard beyond Hitler and Mother Teresa, then no one is really right or wrong-—-it's just one person's opinion against that of another.
Fortunately, as we have seen, there is a real moral standard beyond human beings. C. S. Lewis wrote, "Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in." 25
Hopefully we've done some clear thinking in this chapter. Here's a summary of what we've covered:
There is an absolute standard of right and wrong that is written on the hearts of every human being. People may deny it; they may suppress it; their actions may contradict it; but their reactions reveal that they know it.
Relativism is false. Human beings do not determine right and wrong; we discover right and wrong. If human beings determined right and wrong, then anyone would be "right" in asserting that rape, murder, the Holocaust, or any other evil is not really wrong. But we know those acts are wrong intuitively through our consciences, which are manifestations of the Moral Law.
This Moral Law must have a source higher than ourselves because it is a prescription that is on the hearts of all people. Since prescriptions always have prescribers—they don't arise from nothing—-the Moral Law Prescriber (God) must exist.
This Moral Law is God's standard of rightness, and it helps us adjudicate between the different moral opinions people may have. Without God's standard, we're left with just that— human opinions. The Moral Law is the final standard by which everything is measured. (In Christian theology, the Moral Law is God's very nature. In other words, morality is not arbitrary—it's not "Do this and don't do that because I'm God and I said so." No, God doesn't make rules up on a whim. The standard of rightness is the very nature of God himself—infinite justice and infinite love.)
Although it is widely believed that all morality is relative, core moral values are absolute, and they transcend cultures. Confusion over this is often based on a misunderstanding or misapplication of moral absolutes, not on a real rejection of them. That is, moral values are absolute, even if our understanding of them or of the circumstances in which they should be applied are not absolute.
Atheists have no real basis for objective right and wrong. This does not mean that atheists are not moral or don't understand right from wrong. On the contrary, atheists can and do understand right from wrong because the Moral Law is written on their hearts just as on every other heart. But while they may believe in an objective right and wrong, they have no way to justify such a belief (unless they admit a Moral Law Giver, at which point they cease being atheists).
In the end, atheism cannot justify why anything is morally right or wrong. It cannot guarantee human rights or ultimate justice in the universe. To be an atheist-—-a consistent atheist—-you have to believe that there is nothing really wrong with murder, rape, genocide, torture, or any other heinous act. By faith, you have to believe there is no moral difference between a murderer and a missionary, a teacher and a terrorist, or Mother Teresa and Hitler. Or, by faith, you have to believe that real moral principles arose from nothing. Since such beliefs are clearly unreasonable, we don't have enough faith to be atheists.