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God and “The” Good: An Essay On Morality, Part III

January 12, 2012

III.       A Case for Objective Values

Throughout the history of ethical philosophy, there have always been those who argue that there are no objective values—Protagoras, for example—and those, such as Plato, who argued that objective values do, in fact, exist.  Yet, even with this being the case, a claim such as Mackie’s remains as provocative as ever, for it seems to go against every intuition that humans have to deny the existence of such values.[1]  What I mean is that the “typical” person who is not versed in the intricacies of academic moral theory is likely to believe that an objective right or wrong (or good or bad) do exist, whether or not they can explain how they know it to be so.  To most people, it seems self-evident that there is such a thing as morality and that we are in some sense obligated to be people who behave morally.   Michael Smith in his essay on Moral Realism captures this point well:  “It is commonplace that we appraise each other’s behavior and attitudes from the moral point of view.  We say, for example, that we did the wrong thing when we refused to give to famine relief this year, though perhaps we did the right thing when we handed in the wallet we found on the street.”[2]

C. S. Lewis, the famous modern defender of the “moral argument” begins his case for Mere Christianity, by also confirming the ‘commonsensical’ nature of what we call moral argument and deserves to be quoted at length:

 Everyone has heard of quarrelling.  Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say.  They 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.’  People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups…Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him.  He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.  And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’[3]

To state the obvious, Lewis makes the point that the majority of people take it for granted that moral values exist or are real.  And this is precisely the point of Mackie’s statement denying their existence.  Though there are moral theories, such as emotivism, which proposes that moral statements (i.e. “It is wrong to do such and such”) are simply expressions of pleasure or displeasure (which Lewis denies), or prescriptivism, which states that moral statements are basically imperatives (i.e. “Murder is wrong” in a prescriptivist sense would mean “Do not murder”) that could be settled by utilitarian discussions but have no objective basis, Mackie in agreement with Smith, Lewis, and others, argues that when people say “Murder is wrong,” they most typically mean that there is a wrongness in the act of murder that is an objective reality; or, it is a fact that murder is wrong.  Therefore, the belief—whether rightly as Lewis believes, or wrongly as Mackie believes—that moral values do exist is the “layperson’s” view of objective values and moral argument.

We seem to be at an impasse here. On the one hand, if naturalism is true, then moral objectives do not exist, Mackie is right, and regardless of how self-evident moral truths seem, we are in “error.”  On the other hand, there seems to be a strong, “commonsense” pull toward acknowledging that these values, however we come to explain them, do exist and that they provide the ground for our moral intuitions and the framework for our moral deliberations.  As I have also suggested, if we are inclined to believe that these values do, in fact, exist, then we must strongly consider the likelihood that God exists, for they would be, necessarily part of a metaphysical reality, by the sheer fact that nature is inherently value-neutral.  This would, thus, be the initial building block for a theistic ethical theory in describing God’s relationship to the good and/or right:  God must exist for the good to exist.

I wish in the rest of this section, therefore, to offer a brief defense of objective values.  I must confess, however, that because objective values would fall under the category of metaphysical reality, empirical verification of them is impossible.  It is for this reason that I have been using the conditional “if” throughout this paper.  I do not presume to be able to provide compelling evidence for the existence of moral values—or of God for that matter.  What I am convinced of is that our acceptance or denial of objective values is not based on any sound evidence either way, but upon the presuppositions that we hold; mainly the presupposition that there is a God or that there is not a God.  A response to three of the most common objections to objective values will demonstrate this.

[1] Hence the once popular ethical theory of Intuitionism proposed by some philosophers such as G. E. Moore.

[2] Michael Smith, “Realism,” in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1993), 399.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 3.

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