The essence of morality September 9, 2012

[An excerpt from Chapter 17 of "Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything"]

Human beings are not only endowed with mind but also with morality. As we saw in Chapter 9, we have consciences that monitor and judge our thoughts and actions. In short, man appears to be the only creature that can distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. In this chapter I shall use the term ‘morality’ to cover all moral attitudes and actions, whether they are judged ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘neutral’. Just how we judge anything will, of course, depend entirely on they way it compares with some standard. For the theist that standard is the law of God. For the consistent atheist it can only be evolution — moral quality must be assessed in terms of evolutionary benefit or failure. But either way, morality really exists. Let me tell you a true story.

A family were standing in the large kitchen of their home talking to friends while their three-year-old daughter pushed her doll’s pram to and fro with some vigour. In doing so, she ran the pram into her father’s leg, inflicting (as I remember) a degree of pain. The child’s older sister immediately issued a stern rebuke: ‘Alison, say sorry to daddy!’ The younger child continued her perambulations without response but we could see her mind was working overtime. ‘Say sorry to daddy!’, came the repeated command. No reply. A further interval elapsed and the older sister’s voice rang out again: ‘Say sorry!’ There was a prolonged pause and then the worried frown on the toddler’s face was suddenly replaced by a seraphic smile: ‘Me can’t talk’, she said.

The adults dissolved in laughter but I have never forgotten the incident because its implications are really quite profound, illuminating the whole question of human morality. Clearly, Alison knew she had done ‘wrong’ in hurting her father. Her stubborn refusal to admit guilt is evidence enough of that. If she had no sense of right and wrong she would have experienced no moral dilemma.

We could, of course, explain the episode away. It wasn’t that the child had some innate moral awareness, we might say, but that her sense of guilt was a conditioned reflex. She recognised her sister’s tone of voice and knew from past experience that it meant trouble. No doubt children do have conditioned reflexes, but the appropriate reflex in my story would have been one of two things — either a simple denial of responsibility (‘it wasn’t me it was my doll’) or a quick apology (knowing that an apology defuses such situations). It was the devious guilt-reaction that revealed the toddler’s moral awareness — her silent inward struggle spoke volumes. She knew she was guilty and should apologise, but exercised considerable ingenuity to bypass conscience and evade moral responsibility. And you can’t evade what you don’t have.

Such behaviour is typically and uniquely human. We can only experience such problems if we have a genuine moral sense in the first place. If, at that moment, the family’s pet dog had walked into the kitchen leaving muddy paw-prints, it too might have been scolded. It might have cringed and put its tail between its legs, recognising disapproval in its master’s voice. But this would be a genuine conditioned reflex, a response to an external signal. There would be no corresponding inner awareness of wrong-doing — otherwise, next time, it would have wiped its feet on the doormat.


The moral argument for God


At the time of writing I had recently read The language of God[i] by geneticist Francis Collins. He abandoned his former atheism after reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and being won over by the moral argument for the existence of God. This argument points out that morality is a form of law and, as we saw in Chapter 9, moral law necessitates a law-giver. Collins is one among many who have started from morality and arrived at God. In the present book, of course, we are following the opposite path, beginning with the hypothesis of God and deducing human morality as a necessary consequence.

In doing so we are following a route mapped out by St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Alister McGrath writes[ii]: ‘Aquinas’s arguments have Christian assumptions — for example, that there is a God, and that this God has created the world. The arguments then proceed to demonstrate that these beliefs are consistent with the way the world actually is. For example, Aquinas asks where human values such as truth, goodness and nobility come from. What causes them? … The origin of these ideas, Aquinas suggests, is God which is the ultimate cause’. If God exists as a moral being who has made man in his own image, then man must also be a moral being. Does this match our observations? Yes? Then the hypothesis is verified to that degree.

Whether we walk the path from morality to God or from God to morality, the path is there to be walked. However, the ‘God downwards’ approach has a distinct advantage. If we reason only from the nature of man to God we are in danger of fashioning a ‘God’ in the image of man. God is located as a moral entity but he may be that and nothing more — which offers a severely restricted perception of the divine nature. Even worse, because man’s practice of morality is so numbingly inconsistent, we are likely to conclude that God himself is morally inconsistent — as Richard Dawkins does in his infamous tirades against the Deity.

Man’s moral practice is bizarre by any measure. A tribe that applies strict laws against murder, adultery and theft may think nothing of making war on a neighbouring tribe — killing, raping and spoiling its enemies. It happens all the time — witness Stalin’s purges, the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’, the killing fields of Cambodia and seemingly endless tribal conflicts in Africa. Strange as it may seem, this is all predictable on the hypothesis of God, as we shall see in a moment. Antithetically, the atheist seeks to interpret mankind’s moral maze in evolutionary terms as the struggle for existence[iii] but runs into all kinds of contradiction in the process, as we shall also see.

But what is commonly overlooked in the slanging match that ensues, is that none of this affects the fact of human moral awareness. The debate between theists and atheists is often marked, on both sides, by a failure to distinguish between two quite different things, namely, the practice of morality and the existence of morality. The former is confusing to say the least, but the latter is unavoidable. There can be no more conclusive proof of this than the way that atheists, while attributing morality to amoral ‘selfish genes’, continually attempt to seize the moral high ground! For example, Richard Dawkins writes:

‘My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. … Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish’[iv].

What Dawkins doesn’t seem to realise is that if his atheism were true, there would be no moral high ground to occupy. I once visited Minnesota in the depths of winter and, somewhat jet-lagged, was being driven home from the airport by my host. We passed a large snow-covered field and I remarked that it looked remarkably flat. ‘That’s because it’s a lake’, he replied laconically. Likewise, atheism ought to be a featureless plain, boasting not so much as a moral molehill, let alone the mountain from which the new Olympians hurl down their moral thunderbolts upon theists, religion and lesser gods. If our world is the product of amoral forces, and if man is simply cosmic flotsam scattered on the shores of time, then morality (including Dawkins’ longed-for generosity and altruism) simply does not exist. Nothing can be ‘good’ and nothing ‘evil’. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ are concepts devoid of meaning, and anyone who passes moral judgement dwells not on moral high ground but in cloud cuckoo land. To their credit, older atheists like Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre and Camus recognised this and saw that it led logically to nihilism or, at best, to absurdity. The ‘new atheists’ (who want us to call them ‘brights’) seem oblivious to the obvious.

To summarise, therefore, morality (whether good or bad) exists, and does so uniquely among humans. Whatever moral judgements we make does not alter the fact that there is a moral domain which manifests itself in both individual and social conscience. As we have seen [v], this follows naturally and explicitly from the hypothesis of God, but cannot logically be ascribed to a wholly amoral process such as evolution or the supposed ‘selfishness’ of human genes.

[i] Francis Collins, The language of God (Simon and Schuster UK Ltd., 2007) pp. 21-31.

[ii] Alister McGrath, The twilight of atheism (Doubleday, New York, 2004) pp. 181-182.

[iii] For a detailed account of the way evolution seeks (and fails) to account for man’s moral inconsistency, see Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, Answering the new atheism (Emmaus Road Publishing, Steubenville, Ohio, 2008) Chapters 5 & 6.

[iv] Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene (Oxford University Press, 1989) p.3.

[v] See Chapter 9 and Romans 2:14-16.