Most people believe some things are right (e.g. helping others or being honest) and other things are wrong (e.g. rape, genocide or pedophilia). And if you tried to defend any of those “wrong” behaviours, most people would think you had lost your humanity. They think those things really are wrong.
But what makes them wrong? If the human race is the result of evolution alone, then what we think has evolved by natural selection to be what helps our genes, and perhaps our tribe, to survive and reproduce. And genocide and rape might actually help that survival, in some situations at least.
So these thoughts have long formed the basis of an argument for the existence of God, who is the source of these ethical beliefs. But does the argument succeed?
The basic argument is simple:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
- Therefore God exists.
The argument is logically valid, so its truth depends on its two premises.
God and ethics
In favour of the truth of the first premise is that many atheists accept it. For example William Provine said: “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences …. no ultimate foundation for ethics exists…”.
However a common objection is Euthyphro’s Dilemma, which asks the question: Is something good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good? If we answer that God’s command makes it good, then ethics are at God’s whim and could have been otherwise. But if we answer that God abides by some external standard of good, then we don’t need God to have objective ethics.
Theists argue that good is found in God’s character, but I can’t see how that changes the dilemma.
Nevertheless, the atheist is unable (I believe) to find any satisfactory basis for objective ethics.
Are ethics objective?
This premise would be accepted by most people, but there are atheists who deny it. They speak of ethics based on human feelings, or on what works best for society, but their explanations don’t really avoid the fact that it is almost impossible to live as if ethics are a matter of opinion, or could legitimately vary from one culture to another.
How do we know what is right?
Perhaps the argument can be re-formulated, so that it is based on our knowledge of ethics rather than the fact of ethics. The argument would then become:
- If God does not exist, we cannot know moral values and duties are objective and true.
- We do know moral values and duties are objective and true.
- Therefore God exists.
This form of the argument captures the truths we naturally believe about ethics, but avoids Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Humans don’t seem to have any means of verifying ethical statements (like we can very mathematical or scientific statements), and our ethical sense seems to be seriously impaired. Belief in God provides the means of knowing the ethical truths we all perceive are in fact true.
So it seems to me that this more modest argument can be more easily defended.
So do ethics point to God?
It appears that the main argument as it stands cannot succeed as a ‘proof’ of God’s existence, because of Euthyphro’s Dilemma. However it does expose some weaknesses in the atheistic view of ethics. It raises questions which suggest that God is the only way we can have an objective ethic, and the only way out is to let go our natural feelings about ethics. And the second argument seems to me to convincingly show why our ethics rely on God.