A Few Thoughts on Morality

Much is made by theologians, apologists and philosophers by morality, and various moral arguments – some attempting to demonstrate the reality of God, some for other reasons. The Christian claim generally goes like this:

Objective moral values exist.

If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

Therefore, God exists.

Pretty simple argument. A few definitions: objective moral values = things like  murder is wrong in an absolute, objective way – it is true whether or not anyone believes it to be. It *is* wrong – not just determined by societal values or cultural values, but objectively wrong.

There are differing views on this line of argument (there are some pretty interesting takes on the argument, but this is pretty much the core of it). Firstly, is there such a thing as objective moral values, and, if there are, can the leap to God be made so quickly? Many would claim that no such OMV exist. Morality is simply a product of society, evolving with society.

Others would argue that a kind of natural law exists – that there are natural moral laws, such as don’t kill, etc. Most of the time these are grounded in some kind of theism, and most Christians would take this line. Folks like C.S. Lewis argued quite powerfully about the reality of the natural moral law. Aquinas was a key figure in the development of natural law ethics – the gist of his thought was that we could grasp the natural law by human reason apart from faith.

Not all theists agree with natural law ethics, however. Bonhoeffer, for example, denied that there exist natural moral laws that we can know apart from faith. This puts him quite apart from the Aquinas tradition.

There have been a lot of attempts to ground morality in something other than God, some good, some not so good.

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7 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Morality

  1. Derek Rishmawy October 8, 2012 / 12:03 am

    Peter Kreeft makes the argument, but instead of immediately moving to God, he sets it up as “either the ‘religious’ view is correct or atheism”, and then goes on to point out that objective morality is hard to make sense of on atheism. From there you can make a few steps forward a la Lewis to argue for theistic sort of God. I think in the baseline form, the first thing it does is make atheism problematic.

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    • whitefrozen October 9, 2012 / 3:45 pm

      I’ll see if I can find the argument Kreeft makes for reference – but I would agree that there needs to be an intermediary step between morality and God if one is to make the moral argument. I think objective moral values are the toughest part to establish. What I’m wondering, though, is what if someone like Bonhoeffer is right in saying that there aren’t really objective moral values out there that we can apprehend by reason apart from faith.

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      • Derek Rishmawy October 9, 2012 / 3:55 pm

        Yeah, I read the ethics and I’m not sure I got that. I might have missed it though, and somebody has my copy so I can’t revisit the section. Here’s what I’ll say. I think we can distinguish a few things:
        1. The existence of objective moral values distinct from the commands of God in terms of ontology.
        2. Their discoverability by reason alone in terms of epistemology.
        I think that on the first, in one sense, I don’t think that there can be OMV without God. OMV hold because they are written into the grain of the universe. God created the universe with a certain order, consistent with his own character. Furthermore they are there whether or not we know them.
        Now, it is a further step to judge whether or not reason can apprehend them. I’m of mixed views on the subject. In a sense, I think Romans 2 points us to the fact that through conscience, nonbelievers recognize the claims of God on our life. Also, nonbelievers clearly have a moral sense and make all sorts of moral arguments. At the same time, I do think that it’s impossible to ground OMV without some kind of theologico-metaphysical ground that inevitably takes you towards faith.

        Of course, I’m none too keen on the faith and reason contrast as it is often used.

        These are some thoughts.

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        • whitefrozen October 9, 2012 / 4:11 pm

          Regarding faith/reason I would agree with you, and say for my part I hold that the dictotomy posited between them is nothing more than a myth.

          Regarding the existence of OMV without God, yeah, I think it’s pretty much impossible to really have/ground them without God. I’ve tried to think of a way one could, but I just don’t think it can be done. Not to say that everyone who isn’t a Christian is a moral monster, obviously.

          I would say that apart from faith, though, any moral ideas/theory are basically going to be little more than social constructs – following Bonhoeffer I would actually say that the problem in ethics is trying to know good and evil and not God, but this is an idea that takes some time to really delve into. It ties in with his Christology and some of his earlier work which is a pain in the butt to read. At any rate, I’m just spitballing hre.

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          • Derek Rishmawy October 9, 2012 / 4:20 pm

            No, I’m with you. Ironically, in taking my moral theory class in my undergrad in philosophy I became convinced that it really doesn’t work without the theological option. I’m just wondering how much common grace comes into play, as well as those parts of the Imago Dei that are just structures to life and thought that can be recognized, even by those who don’t hold the same assumptions. I go back and forth on the issue in my head.

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        • whitefrozen October 9, 2012 / 4:17 pm

          This makes the point quite well – better than I have, at any rate:

          “It is well to remember that one must be living the will of God in order to know it. The Psalmist says, ‘A good understanding have all those who do His commandments’ (Ps 111:10; cf. Jn 7:17; 1 Jn 2:4-6). According to the apostle Paul, a reorientation in both thought and life is ncecessary in order to apprehend the path of God open to us: ‘Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you, but let your behavior change, moderated by your new mind. This is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do’ (Rom 12:2 JB; cf. Phil 1:9). This is the hermeneutic of obedience in which the discernment of the will and purpose of God is inseparable from the practice of the Christian life. Bonhoeffer gives us this relevant word of warning: ‘For him whose life has become a prey to disorder and ndiscipline, it will be difficult to hear the commandments of God in faith. It is hard for the sated and the mighty to grasp the meaning of God’s judgment and God’s mercy'” (Donald Bloesch, Freedom For Obedience, p. 200).

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          • Derek Rishmawy October 9, 2012 / 4:40 pm

            This sounds like something close to virtue ethics and virtue epistemology. You need to practice the truth, comform yourself to it in order to see it.

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