“Why do you believe God is a person?” asked the CEO sitting next to me on the plane. He was a convert to Tibetan Buddhism and thought it more reasonable to think of God as an impersonal force. Over the next two hours, I shared five reasons I believe God is a person—the same five I have been summarizing in this series. We now come to the third reason, which is that only a Person can be the cause of the moral values we all share (such as “Racism is wrong”).
Objective Moral Values Exist
As with the first two reasons, the place to start this conversation is with common ground. Everyone believes moral absolutes exist (though many will say they do not). For instance, I have a friend who is a pantheist and practicing Wiccan (a “white” witch). She would say moral values are relative—“to each his own.” However, she often posts on Facebook her reasons why everyone should protect the environment, that it is our duty to promote social justice, and that everyone must be true to himself or herself. Words like “should,” “duty,” and “must,” indicates these are not just her personal, private moral inclinations (if they were she could not say “racism is wrong” but only “I don’t happen to like racism”). Instead she is trying to convince others to embrace these values as well, because she believes these values are the right ones everyone should believe. They are objective moral values. So she, like I, believe in the existence of moral absolutes.
In past blogs I have given other examples of how we all assume moral absolutes exist. I discussed this in the context of making good, right, wise, and just decisions. I observed how moral absolutes are woven into movies, and we celebrate this. I noted that everyone betrays some moral absolutes in response to catastrophes like hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Most recently I observed how our shared understanding of moral absolutes is on full display in our response to the sexual harassment of “Weinstein et al.”
When pointed out, it is hard for even the most ardent skeptic to deny that objective moral values exist. This is the third feature of the universe we must find a cause to explain (after the first feature—the fact of the universe and the second feature—the form of the universe).
Do Objective Moral Values Come From Their Evolutionary Advantage? Don’t Bet On It
Some argue that objective moral values are the result of the evolutionary process. They reason that ones who believed in objective moral values had a “selective advantage” over others, and so they survived to pass on this belief. However, this option fails for several reasons.
First, what is the evidence that belief in objective moral values gives one a selective advantage? The opposite seems to be the case. The person who embrace objective moral values such as “treat others fairly,” “be compassionate,” or “protect other’s freedoms” often is at a disadvantage to the person who does whatever it takes to get ahead, doesn’t care about others and therefore takes advantage of everyone else for his or her own ends. So it would seem that adaptive advantage would have produced just the opposite of the objective moral values we must explain.
Furthermore, some of the highest virtues have the lowest survival value. Acts of valor in war are highly exalted as morally virtuous, but they often lead to one’s death. The same is true of altruistic acts such as donating a kidney. This makes no sense if we developed objective moral values because they provided us a selective advantage.
Finally, if objective moral values developed because they gave us selective advantage, we would all share the moral value that “the weak should always perish so the strong can survive.” As a result, we would have no concern over the possible extinction of other species, since they must be “less fit” if they are on the verge of extinction. In fact, we would celebrate the extinction of other species as one of the highest goods, and find despicable anyone who tried to intervene to save them from extinction. But our moral values are just the opposite. This is another reason to suspect any attempt to ground objective moral values in “selective advantage.” We must look elsewhere for an adequate explanation for objective moral values.
Do Objective Moral Values Come From “Plato’s Heaven”? I Doubt It
A second option is that objective moral values are “brute givens”—Platonic universals that have existed eternally (metaphorically said to exist in “Plato’s heaven”). There is nothing that caused them to exist. They just are.
As you may have picked up by other things I have blogged about, I believe in universals (for instance, see my third post on “Three Reasons to Believe in Things You Can’t See”). They make sense of much of what we know and experience and are consistent with biblical revelation. However, that does not mean the form of Platonism which understands moral values as “brute givens” is the best option.
The main problem with this is that many moral absolutes seem to be attributes of persons. Think of justice. It makes sense to say a person is just. However, it makes no sense to simply say “justice is.” The existence of justice seems to require a person who has this virtue. And if it is a transcendent virtue, it must be had by a transcendent person.
Furthermore, we seem to have a real moral obligation to embody certain moral values. For example, we seem to have obligation to be loving and just in our dealings with others. We must ask who this obligation is to. It is not just to one person or one group. It is to everyone, everywhere. It transcends the personal and cultural. So this obligation must be to something transcendent. But it is hard to make sense of us having a moral obligation to an impersonal Platonic form. On the other hand, it is not at all hard to understand having a moral obligation to a Person.
Therefore it seems unlikely that these objective moral values are the result of Platonic universals in and of themselves (without a Person “behind” them—see below).
Do Objective Moral Values Come From an Impersonal Force? Not Likely
A third option is that objective moral values come from an impersonal Force (an impersonal reality underlying all else). This view is known as pantheism (which has many forms, including Tibetan Buddhism, New Age thought, and the theology of Star Wars).
This view runs into the same problems as brute Platonism above. Again, moral attributes seem to be had by persons. It makes sense to say a person is just. However, it makes no sense to say an impersonal force is just. If I were to tell you that a magnetic field is just, you would have a good laugh.
Nor can any sense be made of us having moral obligations to a Force. You would also laugh if I told you that I try to be just because I have a moral obligation to a magnetic field. No, moral obligations are only owed to persons. Therefore, pantheism fails in the same way brute Platonism fails.
But pantheism has an additional problem. It teaches that “all is one and one is all.” Ultimate reality is “the One” which doesn’t have any distinctions at all. Reality is like a pot of soup boiling on the stove. It is ultimately one thing (bean soup). Now and then bubbles appear on the surface, and we might be tempted to see them as different, individual things. But soon they pop and merge back into the soup. There is really only one thing—the soup—and any other distinction is arbitrary, artificial, and false.
In the same way, pantheists believe that ultimately there is only “the One.” Now and then we make distinctions (for instance, between this and that, you and me, here and there, now and then, good and bad, right and wrong). But these distinctions are like bubbles on the surface of the soup—we may think they are real, independent things, but they soon pop and disappear back into the “Oneness of being.” We must realize this, and stop believing these distinctions are true. (The “yin-yang” symbol expresses this idea that any distinctions, such as “black” and “white,” are false.) Therefore, objective moral values cannot truly exist for the pantheist, for “good” and “bad” are just another type of arbitrary and false distinction that ultimately breaks down.
For these reasons pantheism is not an adequate explanation of the fact of objective moral absolutes.
Do Objective Moral Values Come from a Moral Person? Most Probably
The only option left, and the only option that fully explains the data, is that a transcendent Person exists as the cause of these objective moral values.
Notice that this is not an argument that people have to believe in God to be moral. Many people believe in moral absolutes and live very moral lives while holding to a wide range of beliefs. Instead, the issue is a question of what is required to explain adequately the existence of these objective moral values. And for that, only a Person will do.
I also want to clarify that I do believe moral values exist as Platonic universals,. However, contrary to the brute Platonist, I think God eternally generates universals. I will write more on this in the future.
The Formal Argument
Formally this is known as the “Axiological Argument” for God’s existence, from the Greek word “axios”—value or worth. The structure of the argument is another disjunctive syllogism:
- Objective moral values exist.
- This fact must be explained
- The possible explanations are A or B or C or D (Selective Advantage or brute Platonism or Pantheism or Theism)
- This fact can not be explained by A (Selective Advantage)
- Therefore the best explanation is either B or C or D (brute Platonism or Pantheism or Theism)
- This fact can not be explained by B (brute Platonism)
- Therefore the best explanation is either C or D (Pantheism or Theism)
- This fact can not be explained by C (Pantheism)
- Therefore the best explanation is D (Theism)
A transcendent Person can only explain objective moral absolutes. This is a third reason to believe God is a person (as the various forms of Theism believe) and not an impersonal force, as is believed by the various forms of Pantheism. Next week I will offer the fourth of the five reasons I shared to believe God is a Person. Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest the article by Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of Philosophy at Boston College, entitled “The Argument from Conscience”.