Where does the authority of the absolute moral principle come from?
This article was first published in an edited form in the Nov/Dec. 2005 ABR Electronic Newsletter.
The fundamental premise behind atheism is that God does not exist, and therefore the material order is all there is and all there will ever be. Billions of years ago, they say, the cosmic egg exploded1, a tremendous hydrogen gas cloud that eventually produced the universe all by itself, including human beings who maintain rational thought and moral values. The entire universe exists due to pure random events, under no personal control, direction or authority. Therefore, moral ideals are products of pure random chance, originating in non-living materials. Philosophical materialism must explain the existence of immaterial moral values in a strictly material universe. These moral values relate to persons, yet impersonal forces must be substantiated as the cause of personal morality.
John Frame states the problem in this manner:
Now, where does the authority of the absolute moral principle come from?…The question concerns the authority of that principle: why should we give to it the enormous respect which we indeed do give to it? Ultimately, only two kinds of answers are possible: the source of absolute moral authority is either personal or impersonal.Consider first the latter possibility: That would mean there is some impersonal structure or law in the universe which sets forth ethical precepts and rightly demands allegiance to them. But what kind of impersonal being could possibly do that? Certainly if the laws of the universe reduce to chance, nothing of ethical significance could emerge from it. What of ethical significance can we learn from the random collisions of subatomic particles? What loyalty do we owe to pure chance?… And the main question here is, How can an impersonal structure create obligation?… Or: on what basis does an impersonal structure demand loyalty or obedience?2
We can state the case in another manner. It is asserted that the entire universe exists by pure random chance. It logically follows that the very thoughts that are occurring in my brain at this very moment are also random. Any moral assertions that I make are merely the product of chance chemical reactions produced in my brain due to billions of years of evolution. How can I know which chemical reactions (these chemical reactions are my thoughts), are moral and which are not? How do I determine which thoughts are right, and which are wrong? How can I know thoughts of being faithful to my wife are superior to thoughts of infidelity? How can I know Hitler's extermination of Jews is inferior to saving them?
I use the extreme example of Hitler because there is almost a universal moral revulsion at the events of the Holocaust. But why? Is it simply because the man-made rules of society say it is wrong? I think not 3. It is abhorrent at a much deeper level. We all know this to be true, thought some may deny it. Not exterminating our fellow man is clearly morally superior to exterminating him. But how can the impersonal force of evolution create such a personal hierarchy of morality? As John Frame states above, 'How can an impersonal structure create obligation?' 4
Further, one of the main tenants of evolution is survival of the fittest. If certain persons in a society are less able to survive, why should their fellow humans try to prevent their extermination, at the risk of losing their own lives? If this impersonal force can create obligation, it can only create an obligation to eliminate the weak, to not save them. After all, we are only animals that are more highly developed than the other species on the earth.5 The impersonal force of evolution should 'create' chemical reactions that tend to eliminate the weak, the sick, the mentally ill, the elderly, etc. It would not tend to eliminate the intelligent, resourceful, and strong members of the human community. If the impersonal force of 'survival of the fittest' is woven into the fabric of the biological life, why do we attempt to stop it at great human expense when the Adolf Hitlers of the world attempt to carry it out to its logical conclusion?
The Christian theist argues that morality can only exist because there are absolute standards to measure our actions against, and those standards are established by the absolute, infinite and holy God of the Bible. The God of the Holy Scriptures is the eternal Lawgiver, the great moral legislator of the universe. He is the final authority by which all moral questions are to be measured. The Christian theist also argues that without this absolute source (meaning no God, or a diminished new-age god) no real standards of morality can be asserted by human authorities. Without the God of the Bible, we are left with subjectivism. Of this subjectivism, John Frame writes the following:
The assertion that ethical values are merely subjective is self-contradictory, like all statements of subjectivism or skepticism. For the subjectivist is telling us that we have an objective moral obligation to agree with subjectivism,while telling us that no one has an objective moral obligation to anything.6
The subjectivist has another problem, in that he can never live his life consistent with his assertion that there is no absolute moral authority in the universe. He must operate with the assumption of certain moral precepts at some level. Any moral assertion cannot be reconciled with subjectivism. Moral assertions are inconsistent with a rejection of absolute morality. C.S. Lewis explains it in this fashion:
They [people quarreling with one another] will say things like this: 'How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you', 'That's my seat, I was there first.' 'Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm'. 'Come on, you promised'. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying the other man's behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about… It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.7
Lewis is arguing that there seem to be certain understood standards which we agree upon at some basic level. Now, it is true that people rationalize their way around these standards, justifying certain behaviour in order to attempt to circumvent the standard. But they do not always behave in this fashion. No one lives his life this way. Even Nazis and Stalinists had to tell each other the truth once in awhile in order to communicate and carry out their murderous schemes. We may know someone who breaks these standards quite often. But if we were to violate the standard and offend this particular person, he would object, complaining that our behavior is not fair. Even though he may hypocritically object to the very behavior he justifies for himself, he recognizes the fact that the action is wrong. Though he rationalizes his own immoral behavior, he verifies and confirms his own immorality when it is perpetrated against him.
Lewis states the case this way:
Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he willcbe complaining 'It's not fair' before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties don't matter; but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrongin other words, if there is no Law of Naturewhat is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?8
Allow me to cite a recent example. The recently deposed dictatorial murderer, Saddam Hussein, objected in court to the overthrow of his government by the Bush administration, calling the President a criminal. This is the same Saddam Hussein who attempted to overthrow the governments of Iran and Kuwait through the use of naked and aggressive military force. Hussein justified his behavior in a variety of ways, but when the same was done to him, he objected! Somehow, even a homicidal maniac like Hussein thinks there is a standard of right and wrong to which he can appeal.
Another angle that Lewis takes is comparison. Once you compare two moral ideas to one another, and determine that one is superior to the other you are comparing them to a standard. He states the case in this fashion:
If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others. The moment you say that one set of moral ideals can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people's ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.9
A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.10
Of even greater interest is the fact that, if you continue upward with each higher moral standard succeeding the previous standard, you must continue with comparisons until you reach an ultimate, absolute standard. This progression must eventually terminate in an eternal, uncaused, absolute, perfect, moral, personal standard. You cannot terminate the chain of standards at a finite level, because the finite level you appeal to must have a standard by which it can be measured. The line of increasingly superior moral standards can only terminate in an infinite, absolute moral standard. Only Christianity provides that type of personal and absolute standard. That standard is, and only can be, the God of the Bible.
To further substantiate our case, we return to C.S. Lewis. Lewis not only speaks of an appeal to an independent moral authority and to moral comparisons between certain actions, he also discusses the inherent sense in all humanity that we somehow fall short of a standard that we know we should achieve, but somehow cannot. He writes:
I now go back to what I said at the end of the first chapter, that there were two odd things about the human race. First, that they were haunted by the idea of a sort of behaviour they ought to practice, what you might call fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature. Second, that they did not in fact do so.11
The laws of nature [physical laws], as applied to stones and trees, may only mean 'what Nature, in fact, does'. But if you turn to the Law of Human Nature, the Law of Decent Behavior, it is a different matter. That law certainly does not mean 'what human beings, in fact, 'do' for as I said before, many of them do not obey this law at all, and none of them obey it completely. The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do, and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave). In the rest of the universe, there needs not be anything but the facts. Electrons and molecules behave in a certain way, and certain results follow, and that may be the whole story. But men behave in a certain way that is not the whole story, for all the time you know that they ought to behave differently.12
This law hangs over us, constantly reminding us that we fall short of its standards. It is certainly real, and really cannot be rationally denied. It is somehow a real thing, a law which we did not create, but we nonetheless find it persistently whispering to us, sometimes screaming at us, but always pressing in on us in some tangible way. Skeptics often call this guilt, imposed upon us by parents, environment, societal standards, etc. But this argument is untenable. How do small children know they should hide when they knock over the lamp for the first time, and have never seen such a thing before? Some SS officers in the Third Reich committed suicide because of their guilt in committing murder. Their guilt was not derived from human law (it was legal to do this in Nazi society), but from a Law higher than man, higher than themselves. The proper purpose of these human institutions is to keep us tune with the Law of Nature. They are not the creator of the standard itself. They are intended to help us, to attempt to minimize the deviation from the Law of Nature. Of course, they never work to perfection, for we all fall short. (Romans 3:23).
These standards run through most societies to one degree or another. They are quite universal. Human imperfection makes them inexact at points, but they are consistent for the most part. And, we never evaluate these societal standards in isolation; we always compare them to one another. This returns us to the idea of the comparison between two moral ideas, and each must appeal to another standard in order to be weighed. Nazi laws dehumanizing Jews cannot be deemed immoral unless we can assert that some other standard is morally superior to them, and that can only be determined when it is weighed against some transcendental norm. This is inescapable.
In conclusion, we can say the following with certainty: 1) It seems quite impossible that personal moral standards can even exist in an impersonal universe. 2) Even if personal moral standards could arise in a materialistic universe13, how could we determine their certainty if our very thoughts are random chemical processes? 3) It is certain that once you admit the superiority of one moral idea against another, you cannot logically substantiate your argument without ultimately appealing to an absolute, personal source of morals, the God of Scripture. 4) All human beings know there is a standard which they fall short of, and they often demonstrate this knowledge in their own hypocrisy. This knowledge of good and evil is the human conscience, given by Almighty God. 5) Subjectivism is logically impossible, for its assertion is self-refuting. Only personal absolutism can rationally explain morals at all, and as we have stated previously, morality can only have its origin in the God of the Bible.
Batten, Don. 'That's Nice For You But It's Not For Me.' Creation, 26(1) December 2003-February 2004, 6.
Frame, John. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994.
Frame, John. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002.
Gish, Duane. Creation Scientists Answer Their Critics. El Cajon, Ca.: Institute for Creation Research, 1993.
Ham, Ken, Jonathan Sarfati and Carl Weiland. The Answers Book. Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 1990.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1952.
Morris, Henry. Many Infallible Proofs. Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 1974.
Morris, Thomas. Our Idea of God. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 1991.
Nash, Ronald. The Concept of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1983.
NIV Men's Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997.
http://www.carm.org/relativism/relativism_refute.htm.. "Refuting Relativism", Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.
http://creationontheweb.com/content/view/5836/ "Can We be Good Without God?", Creation Ministries International.
 The creationist Duane Gish has sarcastically pointed out that perhaps the cosmic egg was laid by the cosmic chicken, but this would leave us wondering where the cosmic chicken came from!
 John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1994), 97-98. Emphasis in original text.
 The attorneys at the Nuremberg Trials argued that Nazi laws that classified Jews as sub-human were immoral, because there was a 'higher authority' that these laws violated. Without a personal, absolute God, this appeal is meaningless.
 Frame, 98.
 Another problem is the development of personal moral precepts in humans to begin with. Animals clearly are not moral beings, though they behave in ways that are sometimes similar to our 'good' behavior. This behavior is learned and instinctive, not moral. The family dog is 'good' because we project the idea of morality onto animals, the same way we project the idea of love upon them. Apes are not moral beings, and it is impossible to bridge the gap from amoral creatures such as apes to moral creatures such as humans. Only humans are capable of morality or immorality.
 Frame, 96. This reminds me of the skeptic who declared: 'There are no absolutes'. The believer responded, 'Are you sure?' The skeptic responded: 'Absolutely!'
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. (New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1952), 4.
 Ibid., 6-7. Lewis' reference to the Law of Nature is an older expression that is not related to physical laws such as gravity, but is equated with the Law of right and wrong.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 17-18.
 A purely materialistic universe is impossible anyway, but the point here is for the sake of argumentation.