How do you decide what is right or wrong when you’re an atheist? Sam Harris addresses the issue in his book The Moral Landscape. He discusses why he thinks science is the best tool to evaluate and promote human welfare, and subsequently, the best tool to help us discover proper moral behavior. Christians like apologist William Lane Craig, however, disagree. He feels that Harris has merely outlined a way to determine what is good for humans without addressing moral obligations. Craig writes, “[s]een in this light, his claim that science can tell us a great deal about what contributes to human flourishing is hardly controversial. Of course, it can — just as it can tell us what is conducive to the flourishing of corn or mosquitoes or bacteria.” For Dr. Craig, the issue is not how to maximize human welfare, but why we should. “If God does not exist, why think we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes these moral duties on us? Where do they come from?” You can read Craig’s full article here.
The answer to Dr. Craig’s question is simply, “us.” Our moral obligations come from us because we are the ones affected by these acts, and some acts create positive outcomes for us, while others do not. It seems that those in Craig’s camp, however, find humans too fickle to be a valid source of moral obligation. They feel an outside, “objective” authority is required. If you leave it to humans, they fear, all moral rules will be subjective, and can be defeated by mere differences of opinion.
Take human welfare. Although it is true that human welfare is a subjective goal, a subjective goal can nonetheless lead to objective rules, so long as that subjective goal is largely agreed upon by those involved. For example, take the rules of football: that the rules of football are the way they are, is purely subjective–they’re merely the way the inventors of the game wanted them to be. There is no objective reason, for example, that a first down must be 10 yards rather than 9. Yet within the subjective rules of football where a first down is 10 yards, we can objectively determine whether a team has made it to first down. Similarly, the goal of human well-being may be entirely subjective to humans (alligators care not a bit whether we are well), but that subjective framework enables us to create objective “oughts,” and these oughts comprise what we call morality. Just as God is not needed for us to determine who won the Superbowl, God is not needed to establish what we objectively ought to do. But what happens if we do add God to the mix?
God’s character and the Euthyphro dilemma
The Euthyphro dilemma asks 1) does God command something because it is good, or 2) is something good because God commands it? If we choose #1, the standard for good exists independently of God, making God contingent on that standard and morally superfluous, since we could discover this standard without God. If we choose #2, then good becomes arbitrary, since it would be whatever God decides that it is. In the short video below, Dr. Craig attempts to solve the dilemma on the One Minute Apologist:
Notice that Craig claims to have presented a 3rd option by referencing God’s nature. Yet this is merely option 1 in disguise, with “good” being replaced with “God’s nature.” Rather than being bound by an outside definition of good, God is now bound by his good nature. This is a difference without a distinction. It matters not that this standard has been relocated to God’s nature, for the result is the same: God is bound to act according to something over which he has no control, whether we call it his nature, or an independent standard of what is good (and if we argue that God can change his nature, then we are back to problem #2). Yet by defining God’s unchanging, unchangeable nature as good, we leave a gaping moral chasm that can swallow us whole: what is God’s nature? What does this nature dictate that he will do?
Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition
It is surprising to me that Christians can rest comfortably in their god’s alleged goodness, while not knowing what their god will do next. They say God is good, and then expect that God will be good to them. But why? If God’s goodness is based solely on his nature, and not on any outside measure of his actions, then any act that God performs must be called good, regardless of the effects of those actions on Christians or anyone else. If God decides that a Christian’s family member should die a horrible death, what can the Christian say except “Hallelujah?” Pretend for a minute that you are sitting in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, speculating with Adam about the good nature of God, and what acts a God with such a nature might do. And say someone gave you the following list, and asked you to check off each item you expect God might do one day:
- Flood the earth to kill all of its inhabitants
- Create a lake of fire to torment the disobedient
- Require a father to kill his son as a test of faith
- Command genocide
- Demand blood sacrifice for appeasement of sin
Which of these would you check? Let’s say we made a new list today, to predict what God might do in the next 7,000 years. What divine acts should we expect to see on that list?
Skin in the game
You could argue that humans are just as capable of the actions listed above, and you might be right. In our capacity for cruelty, we truly are made in God’s image. But who ultimately is in a position to decide whether actions that affect humans are good or bad? An omnipotent God whom nothing can harm, who has never known fear or uncertainty, or experienced mortality or irreparable loss–is this being in a position to understand, much less judge, what humans need? I submit that it is only those that are affected by moral acts–those that will actually gain or lose, or live or die, that have the experiential knowledge needed to judge the effects of actions on themselves and their own groups. That is why the list above is shocking when we consider it from a human perspective. It is only when we look at it through the eyes of God, that these acts become “moral.”
So who imposes moral duties on humans? The only ones qualified to do so: humans themselves. There will be disagreements and abuses as history has shown, and we are always in danger of self-destruction. But there is a limit to the danger we pose to ourselves: there is no limit with God. Those who quote Dostoevsky while making moral arguments have it backwards: it is only with God, that all is permitted.