How do we know what is right and wrong? Do we need God to know it? They’re persistent questions, says Mahlatse Winston Mashua.
Johannesburg - I had the pleasure of moderating the public discussion at Wits University between two eminent thinkers, Eusebius McKaiser and Professor John Lennox, on the question of God and morality and whether there’s a connection between the two.
It’s a topic that has been discussed by philosophers for hundreds of years. I am going to sketch out some of the arguments used by those who say there is a strong connection, which is not only intuitive and desirable, but also enjoys support from some atheistic philosophers. Belief in God can be subjected to and withstand the highest levels of scrutiny.
A key area of the discussion hinges on whether objective moral values exist (those that are independent of human opinion, belief or preference).
I believe they do.
Torturing a baby for fun is always wrong, for example, and most people consider apartheid, reverse racism or government corruption to be in a similar category, irrespective of who they benefit or how it might be justified.
What I am not saying is that you have to believe in God in order to know or do what is right. Agnostics, theists and atheists are all capable of moral reasoning and can all be outstanding citizens. The question is not if belief in God is necessary to know and do what is morally right, but what the basis of those moral laws is.
Natural scientists may be able to offer us insights into how moral beliefs might have developed, but, as philosopher David Hume explained, this doesn’t justify moving from an is (what happens in life) to an ought (an ethical pronouncement about what we should do).
If morality is simply a social contract, something people have made up and agreed upon, then it is only grounded in the rule of the majority or powerful (“might is right”).
Yet such moral truths are not independent of the subject they are judging. If we are able to arrive at our moral framework using reason alone, we still need to account for why we ought to follow the conclusions of our ethical reasoning.
Let us take a hypothetical example, adapted from one used by atheist moral philosopher Peter Singer. Suppose Sipho is walking along when he sees a child drowning in a pool.
He stops to evaluate the situation and realises the water is deep enough to drown the child and his own life would not be in danger if he tried to intervene. Yet he decides not to act and walks away from the tragedy.
We’d naturally condemn him for not trying to help the child. We’d feel he has broken a moral law that stipulates that given certain circumstances, people ought to act in a certain way. Furthermore, we feel this ethical code applies to us all equally, even if we haven’t discussed it, or if it isn’t written in any statute book.
Yet, as philosopher GEM Anscombe explains, it is “naturally not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a lawgiver… you cannot be under a law unless it has been promulgated to you”.
Second, there is also a sense in which we’d think Sipho has failed in his moral duty or obligation towards the law(s)-giver.
Philosopher Peter Williams argues that this duty, which is independent of the state, can only make sense if “we make reference to a person that transcends us all”.
Atheist philosopher Richard Taylor agrees, saying: “The concept of moral obligation is unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain, but their meaning is gone.”
Third, we’d expect Sipho to feel a sense of guilt and shame, not at some abstract non-personal principles, but to something personal. If the moral law he violated is independent of him, feelings of guilt would make sense when that moral law that has broken comes from a transcendent person.
So what of the question: “Is something good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good?”
This dilemma is meant to render God redundant as an explanation for the objectivity of moral values.
If the former is true, then God could have chosen to do the opposite and that would be called “good” (thereby making good arbitrary); if the latter is true, goodness is independent of God (so the two are not linked).
Yet this is a false dilemma – akin to asking someone: “Are you a capitalist or communist?” It only offers two choices when more are available.
Williams explains: “God’s commands are good, not because God commands them, but because God is good. Thus, God is not subject to a moral order outside himself, and neither are God’s moral commands arbitrary.
“God’s commands are issued by a perfect being who is the source of all goodness.”
These issues are important to think about, because they dictate how we live.
If we believe in moral objectivity, it makes sense that there is a moral lawgiver. If that is the case, it changes everything.
I, as a Christian, not only believe that God is the grounding behind our morality, but that we can all come into an existentially satisfying relationship with Him by rationally following where the evidence leads.
* Mahlatse Winston Mashua is the Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries South Africa and is a member of the organisation’s global speaking team.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.