Sunday, January 6, 2013

Movies, Morals, and God

I have always loved stories: books, movies, television shows. I like experiencing them and I like sharing them, and I know I'm not alone. The ever-rising price of movie theater tickets – even in a bad economy – shows that we can't help but be drawn to stories. Good stories grip us. They stir our emotions. They make us laugh, cry, or cheer – and the best can make us do all three. 

I think the reason we tend to be moved by stories is because they appeal to our intuitive moral senses. We sense that things like self-absorption, dishonesty, excessive pride, willful ignorance, and cruelty are wrong and evil. Likewise, we sense that things like love, friendship, bravery, loyalty, perseverance, and mercy are right and good. The best stories engage our emotions by playing off these intuitive senses.

But what are these intuitive senses, really? Are they telling us the truth? Is there really such thing as “good” and “evil”? In my experience, philosophical discussions can get very complicated very quickly and often end up going down a lot of irrelevant rabbit trails, so I'm going to do my very best to summarize my perspective on these questions as succinctly and as honestly as possible. First of all, the real question being raised here is whether or not moral truth exists. Statements about moral truth are statements about how things ought to be. For example: people ought not to be racist, or people ought to be allowed freedom of choice. Everyone has beliefs about moral truth, but of course their beliefs are not always the same. For example, Ku Klux Klan members think that people ought to be racist against blacks, and the leaders of totalitarian regimes believe that people ought not to have very much freedom of choice. If there is such thing as moral truth, then it is possible that Martin Luther King Jr. is more right than the Ku Klux Klan (or vice versa). However, if there is no such thing as moral truth then neither the Ku Klux Klan nor Martin Luther King Jr. are right or wrong about the question of how blacks ought to be treated. They are merely expressing preferences.

Therefore, here's an important question to consider: When you make statements about what ought to be or what ought not to be – that is, statements about what is right and what is wrong – are you merely expressing a preference, or do you think you are saying something that is actually true? Perhaps the Holocaust is something that really bothers you. If there is such thing as moral truth, then it is possible that your feelings about the Holocaust are a reflection of a deeper reality; it is possible that the Holocaust really was an evil event that ought not to have happened. However, if moral truth does not exist, then your feelings about the Holocaust are nothing more than feelings. You can say that you don't like the Holocaust, but you can't say in any meaningful sense that the Holocaust was wrong or evil. You are no more right or wrong then Hitler. You just feel differently.

Faced with this choice, I think all of us – if we are honest – would have to admit that we don't think we are just expressing preferences when we talk about right and wrong, good and evil. We think we are saying something meaningful about what ought to be or what ought not to be. In fact, a great deal of what we say is complete nonsense if we do not presume that moral truth actually exists. Every newspaper editorial, every political rant, every rally for a social cause – none of these are any more noble or good or praiseworthy than the beliefs they oppose if moral truth does not exist. And as for the stories mentioned earlier – they may anger us with their portrayals of injustice or move us to tears with their depictions of bravery and love – but if moral truth does not exist the feelings they create are simply that – feelings. And no one's feelings are any more right than anyone else's.

So most of us act as if moral truth actually exists. But what would have to be true in order for moral truth to actually exist? Remember, statements about moral truth are statements about what ought to be and what ought not to be. Therefore, in order for moral truth to exist, there has to actually be a way that things ought to be. In other words, there has to be an intended order to human life, to nature, and even to the universe itself. But there cannot be an intended purpose or design unless there is an intender, and this is why many philosophers believe that moral truth cannot exist in any meaningful sense if God does not. If the universe is the product of the willful intention of a mind – a mind with a purpose – then it is possible that moral truth actually exists. If it is not, then there is no authority above the human mind and all competing moral truth claims made by humans are equally valid.

Perhaps you disagree with my reasoning. If so, I'm interested in hearing your objections. Please note that I am not saying that one cannot live a “moral” life if one does not believe in God. All I'm saying is that there's a strong case to be made for the idea that moral truth does not exist in any meaningful sense if God – that is, some kind of God – does not.

Over the last seven years, I have had many conversations with people about this idea, and the majority of them have accepted the basic reasoning I've presented. Typically, they'll acknowledge that one must believe in the existence of some kind of God if one is going to have a logical basis for believing that moral truths actually exist. However, when faced with the choice between believing in God or rejecting the existence of moral truth, often people will choose to reject the idea that moral truth exists. In fact, in one month I had three separate individuals respond to this line of reasoning by shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Well, I guess the Holocaust wasn't objectively wrong.” When I challenged one of these individuals to put her money where her mouth was and quote herself saying that in her Facebook profile, she actually did it. When a Jewish friend of hers left a comment expressing his offense, she accused him of not allowing her to have an opinion. Notice that she objected to him on moral grounds: she expressed the belief that she ought to be able to express her opinion. It's incredibly ironic: she denied the existence of moral truth but then appealed to moral truth to justify her right to deny it.

All of this is fascinating to me. When I am faced with the choice between belief in God or abandoning the idea of moral truth, I am very much compelled to choose belief in God. I acknowledge that my decision between the two is not entirely rational, but I don't think anyone's decision between the two is entirely rational. I think those of us who think we have to choose between one or the other make our decision based more on how we feel than how we think. For me, I feel too passionately that evil exists to decide that moral truth does not. I am too angered by injustice – too bothered by things like sex slavery, child abuse, genocide, materialism, greed, and racism to say that my feelings about these things are no more valid than anyone else who thinks differently. If believing in moral truth necessitates believing in a God, I choose God.

The Christian view of the world acknowledges that evil is real and says that God, the true standard of goodness, hates evil. Why God allows for the presence of evil in His creation is something of a mystery, but the reason appears to have something to do with His loving nature. Christians believe that God created the world out of love – that is, He created it freely – not because He needed to but because He delighted in doing so. Humans beings are said to be a special part of that creation, because unlike anything else God has made humans are “made in God's image.” This means that humans are meant to reflect God's character – particularly his loving, free nature. However, humanity has taken the freedom that God has given and rebelled against Him. People in the past have done this, and people still do it today. All of us have a struggle with evil – both from forces outside of us and from forces within us. Things are not as they ought to be. The good news of the Christian message, however, is that this will not always be so – but that is a topic for another time.

What do you think? Do you think evil is real? Do you think you think it is illogical to believe in moral truth without believing in God? If you had to choose between believing in God or discarding the idea that moral truths exist, what would you choose?


  1. I'm really impressed with how rationally you can express such an idea. Granted, I agree with you on all points and no one I have heard has made any more a convincing argument.

    1. Thanks, Dann. Just out of curiosity - are you a Dan I know or did you just happen to find the blog?