In a debate, I heard a Christian giving the common defence of Christianity – that we all know there is a moral code. We all know very well that it is wrong to torture and kill children, and right to love and cherish them. The Christian was working his way from the basic moral sense of right and wrong to the presence of an absolute moral God.
However, when the atheist came on next, he quite dismissively said, “Look, we all know that if you go out and murder someone, there are good laws in this land that you will be punished. This does not mean there are moral absolutes, but only that this is what our society has found is best for us as a people.”
This argument seems to hold water until one pokes it just a little bit. First of all, we must examine what is meant by law?
Do Laws Define Morality, or Are They Based Upon Morality?
It is circular and self-defeating to say that the rule of law will dictate morality in society. Laws must be based on morality. But if morality is based on law, then the whole idea of a “just law” collapses. “Justice” becomes synonymous with the laws themselves, and then there is no objective solid ground from which to question a law. What you are saying, in effect, is whatever the laws dictate we must do. Under this mentality, the Nazis were fully justified in obeying their national laws in exterminating the Jews.
To be consistent, what you are actually propounding is a sort of radical nationalism in which legislation makes right, and nobody has a right to question the laws of the state.
But, you will respond, the laws are based upon the will of the people. And so we are able to reject laws which do not fit with common sense. Very well then – let us examine common sense.
Is Common Sense Written On Our Hearts or Our Genes?
You made an appeal to common sense. I must ask you first whether you are appealing to intuitive common sense, or learned commonsense?
Learned Common Sense
If you are appealing to the worldview which we are all taught in infancy, I would question what the foundation of this is? As Albert Einstein has said, common sense is just a collection of prejudices that we are trained to hold by the age of 18. This does not solve the problem of morality, but only defers it back to a previous generation. Our parents taught us what is right because their parents taught them what is right. Who knows where these ideas of morality first originated – perhaps these behaviors were helpful when we were in the monkey stage, swinging from trees. However, if we only have learned commonsense to go on, there can be no such thing as a better or worse morality. If it is taught, it is right. We need to stop judging rapists and murderers, because they may just has well have learned this from their ancestors, or their genes.
What you are saying in effect is that popularity makes right. Or, according to the common phrase, “this many people can’t all be wrong.” But what if they are? Stranger things have happened. We have often seen that moral Reform happens when a few people challenge the status quo of the many. But if your basis for ethics is the consensus of the majority, there is no external grounds for critiquing the ethics of the group. The group ethics are founded upon their own opinion as a majority. Therefore, this too is circular and self-defeating.
But, you will respond, we have another kind of common sense. We do not need to apply everything that we hear from our parents uncritically. We can judge it and evaluated, and take only those moral practices which we feel to be right for us.
What you are doing now is positing a moral agent which is above that of learned common sense. Where does this higher agent reside? It cannot be just your opinion. You just said that you consider the morals of previous generations, and make a decision based upon what you feel is right for this generation. You have made up your mind (0pinion) based upon some internal sense of right and wrong. Let’s call that intuitive common sense for now.
- B. Intuitive Common Sense
If you are appealing to intuitive commonsense, then you are referring to what you have been trying to refute. It is the Christian contention that God law is written on all of our hearts. We know we are sinners because we know intuitively that murder idolatry rape, etc. is wrong. There is an objective right and wrong which abides in the mind of God. Although somewhat corrupted, this law is also written on our hearts.
It is my contention that it is precisely this intuitive common sense that murder is wrong that is behind all the good laws on this topic, as well as our intuitive and learned commonsense.
When you said, “Look, we all know that if you go out and murder someone, there are good laws in this land that you will be punished. This does not mean there are moral absolutes, but only that this is what our society has found is best for us as a people,” you were either making the state God, or tradition God. But you gave it all away when you said, “there are good laws in this country.”
Within your system it is impossible to really say that something is good or bad. Only when there is a supreme moral agent can you do that. But you cannot escape from saying things like that, because morality is within you, written upon your heart, just as Christianity teaches.