When Martin Luther King said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”1, most of us like to believe he was expressing a deep truth. We want to see justice done, at least for causes we believe in.
But do we live in a moral universe? What does that even mean?
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out 30 articles that protect human freedoms, such as freedom of thought, opinion, conscience and religion, and freedom from slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest. The Declaration’s principles are expressed in 18 Human Rights Treaties, most of which have been ratified by most countries.
So we can say that most governments and politicians say they believe in human rights, and probably most people believe in human rights too.
But what gives people these rights?
The Declaration simply says that these rights are based on “the dignity and worth of the human person”.
But what is the basis of this dignity and worth?
Justice is good?
We all know that these rights are denied and the Declaration flouted all over the world. There are more slaves today than in William Wilberforce’s time. Torture and arbitrary imprisonment are used too often. Refugees flee political persecution and seek asylum in countries that are unwilling to receive them.
And when we see injustice, it upsets us. We want to see perpetrators brought to justice.
The film Crimes and Misdemeanors tells the story of a respectable man who has an affair. When his mistress threatens to tell the man’s wife, he arranges to have her killed. The film ends with him happy with the outcome. Those who have seen the movie find it confronting that there is no justice.
So human beings like to believe in human rights and justice. But is this a moral universe?
A moral universe?
We know this is a physical universe, where the laws of physics appear to apply all over. We can have an opinion about something physical, but that opinion makes no difference to the laws of physics. Someone might believe that a comet will hit the earth, but the laws of physics, not their opinion, will determine the comet’s path. So we can say the laws of physics are objectively true.
But some things are only subjectively true. I may prefer Sufjan Steven’s music to Michael Bublé’s, but someone else may have the opposite preference. We can’t use the laws of physics, or any other objective standard, to decide who is right and who is wrong, because we are both right about our own preferences.
So is this a moral universe? Are moral standards objective or subjective?
The problem is, we don’t have any apparatus to test this question and determine an answer. We all have some moral sense, but it doesn’t always seem to work so well, and we can’t always agree. And we certainly don’t have any way to resolve the question with reasonable assurance, like we can questions about physics.
It all depends
The view that ethical statements can be objectively true is known as moral realism.
A theist may argue that God can determine, or at least know, what is moral and what isn’t. We may not be able to know as God knows, but we may be able to believe that God has a way of knowing what is morally true. So a theist can easily be a moral realist.2
The issue is more complex for an atheist. Many atheists are moral relativists, believing that there is nothing in the universe that can make an ethical statement objectively true. They might say that our ethical values are simply a personal choice, or else that they make sense within human evolution. But because people are different, and because different cultures arise in different situations, they may well evolve different morals. These morals would be subjective.
Other atheists are moral realists, but it is harder for them to explain how a naturalistic universe can produce objective ethics. Some say that ethical statements are just brute facts, which I believe is true (although it seems like a statement of faith for them), but this doesn’t solve the problem that they have no basis I can see for knowing what is actually ethically true.
And it gets harder for atheists. On what basis can atheists say that human beings have “dignity and worth” as claimed in the UN Declaration? If humans are just another stage of evolution, we may be smarter than animals and trees, but it is hard to see what makes us have more dignity and worth than any other life. As atheist Damon Linker said: “we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter”.
Justice for all?
Can a society be considered moral if serious lawbreakers are not brought to justice? If moral and law codes are flouted, like the man in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and life simply goes on without justice, is this a moral society? I suppose we could argue about that.
But surely we can say that if the arc of the universe does not bend toward justice, then it is not a moral universe.
And surely we can also say that if there’s no God, no afterlife, there’s also no ultimate justice. Tyrants, dictators, genocidal leaders, exploitive billionaires, pedophiles and wife-beaters who escape justice in this life, as many of them do, will have “gotten away with it”.
On the other hand, if there’s a God, then there may indeed be justice when we each die, though christians would say that that justice is expressed through grace and forgiveness.
So where do universal human rights come from?
A moral realist will likely believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflects objectively true moral values. Those who are theists will believe this on the basis that God has said so.
But for those who are atheists, the choice of these values will be somewhat arbitrary. There are, after all, moral realists who think women should be subjected to behaviours that are condemned by the Declaration, and some of them live in countries where these behaviours are promoted by the law.
To slightly misquote The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Human rights considerations give all a reason to examine the proposition that there is a God very seriously. For if there is no God, human rights are a more perilous enterprise than if there is.” 3
For a longer discussion of right and wrong on this website, see How do we know right and wrong?
Some of the ideas for this post came from two recent posts on Victor Reppert’s Dangerous Idea blog: A consequence of atheism: this is not a moral universe and Human rights, moral objectivity, and the law of noncontradiction.
1. This aphorism didn’t originate with Martin Luther King. It came from an original comment by Theodore Parker, which was developed by others to become the phrase that King used.
2. I’m aware of Euthyphro’s dilemma, and I respond to it by saying that God knows that basic moral values or statements are objectively true and independent of him, just as logical and mathematical statements are objectively true independently of him. Our problem is that we lack the necessary methods to know and demonstrate these objective values, whereas God has the ability to do this. That is why I say “we may be able to believe that God has a way of knowing what is morally true”, whereas an atheist has no way that I can see to know that an ethical statement is true.
3. The original quote referred to morality rather than human rights. It came from an old version of the page on Moral Arguments for the Existence of God. The updated 2018 version no longer contains this sentence.