In Mere Christianity, C S Lewis wrote:
If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong? And for many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question, because I kept on feeling “whatever you say and however clever your arguments are, isn’t it much simpler and easier to say that the world was not made by any intelligent power? Aren’t all your arguments simply a complicated attempt to avoid the obvious?” But then that threw me back into another difficulty.
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten 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? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too — for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist — in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless — I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality — namely my idea of justice — was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.*
There must be a source for our moral sensibilities, C. S. Lewis is saying, outside of our own personal preferences and likes. If there is no outside criteria for truth, justice, fairness and the like, no criteria outside of me, then I can never rationally exhort others to behave the way I believe they ought to. Fairness, justice, right and wrong: it’s all merely my word against theirs, my preference instead of someone else’s preference.
Of course I may by force impose my moral viewpoint on others, but I have no basis outside myself for doing so; by extension, the same applies to any government or state: although it can impose by force, it can have no moral authority since there is no basis except the personal preferences of the governors.
In order to overcome this difficulty, Antony Flew once suggested that a sort of “market economy” of individual moral preferences holds sway, that this “moral market” acts like an invisible hand to create price or value for various behaviors, much as the economic marketplace establishes values and prices for goods. Although this is an interesting concept, it misses the crux of the issue at hand.
That is because the issue at hand is not how to establish agreement about which behaviors are moral and which aren’t (although that is a vital secondary question); rather the issue is where does our moral authority itself come from. What can serve to place the basis for morality outside of our individual or social biases?
Here, there is an alternative to God. It is an alternative that is not entirely free of relativism, in the sense that it is necessarily species-specific. Nevertheless, it is free of relativism from one individual in a species to the next. That is to say, it does not rely on my exotic personal biases, or on yours.
Human morality, according to this alternative, is built into the nature of the human body and its biological instincts. The sense of fairness and justice is as built into us as are our other senses. And the ability to apply this moral instinct to specific situations is as much a part of being human as is our ability to reason and remember.
Unfortunately, we are not all equal in moral skills, just as we are not all equal in reasoning skills or equally adept at remembering. Or for that matter, at throwing or running or catching. Skills must be developed by practice, and this applies to the skill of applying our moral instincts, sensibilities, empathy, to specific situations.
From an evolutionary point of view, the basis of human morality is very clear: morality is a human instinct, much like language, much like the fear of being alone in dark woods, or the desire to walk upright. Different as these are, they are all human instincts.
Just as the language instinct takes practice to be developed to its full flowering, so too with the moral instinct. It needs practicing. And this is something that a strong fundamentalist upbringing can thwart. Call it the commandments approach to childrearing. Some parents send their children the strong message that there are no moral decisions for them to make: that they must always defer to the moral commandments dictated by the Bible or some other religious authority.
For example, in commandment childrearing, a child might be told that lying is simply wrong always and in all situations: the Bible says so, end of subject. In fact, there are certain situations where lying is the right moral decision. Even murder could be the right choice in extremely rare circumstances. The commandments approach prevents a child from developing adequate moral decision-making skills because of the parental insistence that there are no situational moral decisions for the child to ever make. Instead the child has a rule-book to follow to the letter: the Bible.
As a rule, religious children are taught to look to a book or authority figure for the source of their moral sensibilities rather than to their own bodily instincts. The result is that their own moral instincts and feelings are suppressed, and the skill of making moral decisions by refering to those feelings never gets well-developed. Since the basis of morality actually lies in feelings, substituting unfelt words (the letter of the law — in this case Bible law) for those feelings is a setup for failure.
What happens when a fundamentalist child grows up and discovers that the religious authority they have always relied upon is questionable or contradictory? With few moral feelings to fall back on, the result is often disaster.
Our prisons are filled with such disasters.
Even if the now fundamentalist adult never figures out the questionable nature of Biblical morality, there is still a problem. The Bible simply can’t speak clearly to many of the moral situations modern society presents. The authors of the Bible — whether divine or human — failed to address most of the complexities of modern society. Trying to use the Bible as a rule-book simply breaks down.
Moral decisionmaking, furthermore, is very much about engaging our feelings, emotions and desires before we act, weighing them with our sense of identity with other human beings (this snuck into the Bible as the “golden rule”), and making a skilled decision about what to do. If your moral upbringing was all about “following rules” from holy books and religious authorities, then you never developed the necessary skill to do morality on your own. Little surprise that so many fundamentalist preachers end up making the news as hypocrites.
But back to C. S. Lewis. Remember his words,
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten 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?*
Lewis forgets here that morality only applies to moral agents. We hardly consider a volcano immoral for erupting, nor do we condemn the sky for causing tornadoes. But make nature the result of God’s agency and then the volcano and tornado put God’s morality into question: because God is, after all, a moral agent. The atheist doesn’t face an equivalent difficulty with nature since the atheist doesn’t claim that nature is a person.
The problem for the atheist is not, as Lewis mistakenly asserts, that the universe seems “cruel and unjust”. The universe is not a person. It would be as irrational to expect the universe to behave “morally” as it would be to expect morality from a rock. But the atheist does have something to explain, not about justice as it applies to the universe but about justice as it applies to other human beings. Where does our sense of justice, as it applies to human behavior come from?
Lewis’ answer, that it comes from God, doesn’t work, and I refer you to my essay Atheism and Morals (about Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay “Atheism and Morals”) for a full explanation of why that answer fails. However the short explanation is that it becomes impossible to know whether an act is right because God says so, or whether it’s right because it’s actually good. If God’s say-so is what makes something right, then we have no way to distinguish God from the devil. God becomes, to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s explanation,
. . . a Hobbesian sovereign whose title to legitimate authority rests not on his absolute paternal care, his goodness as a father, but solely on his power, and the devil’s lack of such a title rests solely on his inferiority in respect of power. Satan becomes a Hobbesian rebel who fails to be a Hobbesian sovereign only because he is unsuccessful.*
This won’t do, even for Christians. C. S. Lewis answer, that God is the source of morality, has the effect of insulting God. It makes God’s goodness disappear, replaced by God’s raw power. The source of our sense of justice has to lie outside not just our agency, but outside of God’s agency as well. Otherwise neither our decisions nor God’s decisions can be good or bad — and the same goes for the devil.
For God, the only solution that works is for there to be a moral sense built into God’s nature separate from his agency (his actual actions); and somehow God must reference that innate moral sense before he acts if he is to determine the right thing to do. The same solution applies for us. There must be a moral sense built into our nature separate from our agency, and by which we can judge the rightness or wrongness of our actions.
Now, that moral sense must have gotten into us in one of two ways: either because God put it there, or because we evolved as a social species and the process of evolution put it there. Either answer is viable. But — and this is a significant but — the theist faces an additional problem: what or who put God’s moral nature into God? Is there another God behind God, responsible for God’s moral nature? And what about that God’s moral nature?
The theist, unfortunately, can’t resort to evolution to explain God’s moral nature because, for one thing, God doesn’t exist in competition with other species (or with other Gods, supposedly). Nor is God a member of a social species to which God’s moral nature could apply — until God peopled the universe, his moral nature had no application, no purpose, no reason to be. And yet, as we saw earlier, God must have a sense of morality separate from his agency, by which God (and all subsequent beings) can judge the morality of his actions. How did he get this? Why should it be a moral nature rather than an immoral nature — that is, why is God God rather than the devil?
If God is a moral actor, in other words, then God must have a sense of justice to which he can refer when making decisions. “But how,” we can imagine God wondering (anticipating Lewis) “how did I get this idea of just and unjust?” And God might likewise wonder, “Why do I feel obliged to do the right thing for the creatures I created in my world?”
And this brings us to the 1000-lb gorilla: the problem of evil. Not the evil that might result from human misbehavior, but the evil that results (assuming the universe is the product of God’s agency) from God’s decisions when designing the universe. For example, those before-mentioned volcanoes and tornadoes. If God is a moral agent, with a sense of justice, then he must recognize his own culpability in the death and destruction to sentient beings which the forces of nature unleash. He must also recognize the pain and suffering due entirely to his decision to create a world in which life must eat other life in order to survive. If God does not recognize the wrongness of this, it can only be because he is indeed a Hobbsian sovereign who is morally indistinguishable from the devil. But if God does recognize the wrongness of it, then it follows that he also recognizes his fallibility, his own lack of perfection.
And so must we.
The atheist has the easier path. The atheist needs only to demonstrate that evolution can result in a species with an internal sense of right and wrong by which to judge actions, and do so by showing how it might have evolved and by identifying its development in existing species. Scientists face no major difficulty in any of this. We do in fact see a sense of right and wrong exhibited by other primate species, for example; and game theory shows that altruistic behavior along with “tit for tat” can be viable evolutionary strategies. It is possible to invision how such strategies could have been internalized into a social species’ genetic makeup.
The atheist task, compared to that of the theist, is the easier.
In a later post, when I discuss consciousness as “sensations” distinct from the brain’s other, non-conscious “behaviors”, it will be possible (I hope) to explain how morality fits into the picture. In particular, I will argue that decisions are made in non-conscious parts of the brain, and that moral feelings of shame, regret, ought, moral satisfaction, and so on — like our other brain-created sensations — serve a role related to longer-term memory formation and future decision-making. Untangling why we humans have moral sensations, in other words, is very much tied up with untangling why we have consciousness at all, the nature of that consciousness, and its evolutionary role.
*Quotes are from:
Atheism and Morals, Alasdair MacIntyre in The Religious Significance of Atheism, Columbia University Press, 1969, p. 35