What is Morality?: The Problem of Evil Is a Two-Edged Sword

Over a year ago I wrote a series of posts delving into the question of “what is morality?” But I never published them. So I’m going to now. And maybe I’ll even see if I can think of a way to end them, because they sort of dropped off in the middle. (That’s why I didn’t publish them, I guess. But to me the question of “what is morality?” is both interesting mind-candy and also a profoundly important question.

I remember being a young man struggling to make sense of it all: from life, to meaning, to my religion, to God. So please understand that this is something personal to me more so then merely intellectual, though it’s intellectual fun too I hope. I’m not asking questions because they are interesting, I’m asking because I want to know the answers.

I understand that many people think I’m nuts to even ask what morality is. I gather from talking to (some) others that many people just don’t ask questions like this. Morality is morality. What else do you need to know? Leave it alone. Interestingly, I feel like I get the “leave it alone” answer more from Atheists then I do from Theists — an observation that deserves to spawn its own thread later on.

But it just isn’t that simple for me — I must ask the unanswerable questions until I find an answer. And honestly, I can’t help myself anyhow because I seem to be wired a certain sort of way that the questions will enter my head whether I bid them to or not. Worse yet, I’m wired to take my musing and inflict them upon other people.

Now we all know that the best place to start with the exploration of a difficult question is to quote either C.S. Lewis or Marx. I don’t like Marx, so here’s my C.S. Lewis quote — his argument that God exists:

Lewis: Morality is Memory of Another Reality

If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong? … My argument [as an atheist] against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got the idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found that I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning. (Mere Christianity, p. 45-46)

Therefore Lewis’ defines the problem of evil like this:

The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simpler either. What is the problem? A universe that contains much that is obviously bad and apparently meaningless, but containing creatures like ourselves who know that it is bad and meaningless. …the Christian view [is] that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. (Mere Christianity, p. 48)

The Atheists Problem of Evil

This, I believe is the genius of Lewis’ argument. He realized that the problem of evil is as big of a problem for atheists as it is for theists. The problem of evil is a sword that cuts both ways. Being able to make the argument of the problem of evil requires you to first posit the objective existence of morality.

Lewis’ solution to the problem was to assume that his sense of justice came from an outside source.

However, as much as I like Lewis’ argument, I do not find this to be a logically coercive argument. Indeed, one of the points I am forced to admit is that there is a logical alternative to Lewis’ explanation for the existence of morality. (I will discuss this at length in future posts.) Therefore, I must reject Lewis’ argument as a “proof” of the existence of God.

However, following Popper’s epistemology, I do expect that we will not stoop to Rejectionism if we are to reject Lewis’ argument. Merely pointing out the problems with Lewis’ argument are not enough. We must present a full alternative explanation and we must accept all logical consequences of that explanation. If we cannot, then we have no rational alternative to Lewis’ argument and we should go with his instead.

So what would a rational alternative to Lewis’ argument look like? Well, we know it would have to have the following key characteristics:

  1. It must explain why we have a sense of morality and why it’s so important to us, to the point where no matter how ‘evil’ you are you will always re-imagine yourself as a ‘good’ person via rationalizations.
  2. It must explain how that ‘sense of morality’ plausibly arose from evolution.
  3. It must therefore explain the purpose of morality from an evolutionary point of view.
  4. It must therefore be able to evaluate the uses of morality as well as the limits of it, if any. And the most important…
  5. It must be able to explain why our ‘sense of morality’ (i.e. how we internally perceive it as objectively applying to everyone) is not in alignment with the evolutionary uses for it, which demand it to be utilitarian only and therefore relative/subjective only.

There Are No Moral Relativists in Practice

The strength of Lewis’ argument depends upon the fact that we all naturally take morality so seriously that we treat it as if it’s objectively real. Yet, for the problem of evil to be valid, we must first admit that our moral intuitions are in some sense incorrect. Lewis uses the following example:

But the most remarkable thing is this. 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 will be complaining, “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter: but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treat they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong – in other words, if there is no Law of Nature – what is the difference between a fair treat 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? It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. (Mere Christianity, p. 19-20)

Lewis’ argument is compelling for the very reason that this morality is so much a part of human life. You will never really meet a true moral relativist because they don’t exist. Yes, you can find someone who claims to be one. But Lewis is right that they will not consistently act as if they are one.

Dawkins on Morality

Let’s take militant atheist Richard Dawkins as an example. In his book, The Selfish Gene, he creates an impressive gene-based biological explanation of altruism. In essence, he argues that nature and the world of genes is not capable of true altruism because if a truly altruistic gene were to form via mutation, it would always find it can’t compete with selfish genes. Thus we should not be surprised that all genes are selfish by nature. A genes only concern is that they get replicated at the expense of other genes.

This is the Darwinian survival of the fittest taken in a new (and correct!) direction. In fact, Darwin made at least one mistake in his version of survival of the fittest. He didn’t know about genes so he saw life as a struggle for survival of the fittest between organisms. But Dawkins successfully proves that this isn’t true. In fact, the struggle for survival of the fittest is solely between the gene’s themselves. We, the organisms, are just (to paraphrase Dawkins) giant machines our genes created a means of replicating themselves. They are merely taking advantage of us.

However, despite Dawkins insistence that nature can’t create true altruism/morality, he then promptly goes on to make the following comment.

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. … My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. … Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to. (The Selfish Gene, p. 2-3)

How can a statement like that above make any sense at all from within Dawkins own beliefs? I am at a loss.

One possibility is that Dawkins is lying. Perhaps he does not believe in morality but he knows it’s a selective advantage to pretend to believe in it. Therefore, he’s choosing to say what he needs to say to not get kicked out of society. Is this a logical possibility? Why, yes, of course it is. But it sure doesn’t seem very plausible.

For one thing, why is Dawkins spending so much time attacking religion on moral grounds? I accept that Dawkins is a militant atheist for one and only one reason: because he sincerely believes that he is making the world a more moral, better, and more beautiful place by helping people stop believing in God.

So it would seem Lewis is right on this point: there is no such thing as someone who does not believe in objective morality.

The fact is that we all really do believe — deep within ourselves — that object morality exists because we all act as if it has claim on others. If morality really didn’t exist at all, then an appeal to others to have morality have claim upon them would mean nothing.

So at a minimum we can say this: we all act as if morality exists. Even those that claim morality does not exist act that way.

I had a humorous personal experience with this. I have a self-proclaimed “apostate” friend that once told in an email me (when I shared some of these thoughts) that he did not care if morality really existed or not. Then within the next paragraph he listed out two or three moral claims he had against the LDS Church. And, no, I didn’t have enough time to say “Jack Robinson.”

So why is it that even people who do not believe that morality exists act consistently as if it did? Try to imagine someone who doesn’t believe the moon is made of green cheese continually working on a rocket ship in their backyard so that they can go eat the green cheese on the moon. This is how moral relativists act.

So we have a phenomenon in need of explanation, even people that do not believe in the existence of morality do in fact believe in the existence of morality in certain cases.

8 thoughts on “What is Morality?: The Problem of Evil Is a Two-Edged Sword

  1. The fault with the purely evolutionary explanations of morality is that they do not and cannot justify our feeling that morality is obligatory. In other words, that morality is morality, not just impulse. They can explain away morality, but they can’t explain it.

    If you ask me, the real atheist problem of evil is the fact that evil is never redressed. Injustice happens, then you die.

    Which is not to take away the real problems with theist problem of evil. The general arguments are plausible enough, but hard to accept when you get down to cases.

  2. Bruce, with your good sense of logic you have, as usual, arrived at the very contradiction of the atheist/humanist point of view, which is: most atheists/humanists (including Dawkins) spend their whole lives telling everybody how horrible religion is, but in the same breath they reject the idea of objective universal morality. So, the question becomes, religion is bad…for what reason and based on what standard?

  3. But are you confusing belief in moral relativism with a belief that morality doesn’t exist?

    A moral relativist constructs his own personal morality based on his intellectual and subconscious instincts, but he recognizes and admits that it is relative, or even self-serving. He also recognizes the positive potential in morality, when it is relative, and directed in ways he feels are good for society.

    The problem with inflexible morality is that one person’s morals so often differ from anothers, and in many times in the history of the world, appeals to morality have been used to justify terrible war and abuse.

    (This is another proof for God. The uniquely human capacity for evil and the evil of our misguided morals is as much a proof of our divinity as our goodness, as no other animal species behaves in such a self-destructive way. So morality is a two-edged sword. Yes, it comes from God, but it can be guided towards vastly different ends: Hitler’s morality was that “man is the servant of the State.” This is not so different than “man is the servant of God.”)

    Moral relativism recognizes that the moral instinct exists, but seeks to bridle and control it through collective reasoning. Of course it denies that those instincts come from God, and it fails to show that similar moral instincts exist and capacity for evil exist in animal species.

  4. Recently, I’ve been thinking and studying up much on related issues from a Book of Mormon viewpoint. Some of this comes via my thinking on concepts from Salt Press’ book on Alma 32.

    For LDS, our view is different than the rest of Christianity. We do not believe in Creatio Ex Nihilo, but that God formed the earth from matter unorganized. On my blog I’ve written about Order and Chaos, where God creates order (light, firmament) from chaos (darkness, waters).

    For Lehi and Alma, this ties to the Trees of Knowledge of Good and Evil (KGE), and of Life. Lehi taught Jacob that the trees are opposites, one being sweet and the other bitter (2 Ne 2). Adam and Eve partook of the Tree of experience, and with the Fall lived in a world of many experiences: hunger and feasts, cold and heat, sickness and health, pleasure and pain. They had knowledge. But there is a problem with knowledge all by itself.

    The Tree of KGE represents raw experience and knowledge for the Zoramite poor (Alma 32). They knew they were poor and without wealth could not worship God in the Zoramite church building. Their knowledge made them realize they were outcasts from God. Alma recognized this, telling them they were blessed for being humbled/humiliated by their poverty, but more blessed are those who humble themselves because of the word. Alma then describes how one obtains the word: through planting the seed of faith in their hearts, they would grow the Tree of Life, which offered love, mercy, and access to God, without any church or material requirement.

    Dawkins and others try to explain things from only a Tree of Knowledge viewpoint. They explain what they see. In “Mere Christianity”, C.S. Lewis indirectly notes that there is another “other” way of knowing or remembering. He has caught hold of Lehi’s Tree of Life, whose fruit is especially precious in making one happy. Why? Because it sees the world from a faith-based viewpoint, and not just from the materialistic view of Sherem, Korihor or Nehor (or Darwin). There doesn’t have to be a “survival of the fittest”, because there is an extra dimension that is unseen by mortal eyes or scientific experiments, that allows us to look beyond the veil and see the good/light/order among all the bad/darkness/chaos.

  5. A moral relativist constructs his own personal morality based on his intellectual and subconscious instincts, but he recognizes and admits that it is relative, or even self-serving. He also recognizes the positive potential in morality, when it is relative, and directed in ways he feels are good for society.

    This is logically impossible. The moral impulse, by definition, is a sense of *obligation* that is exterior to oneself. The idea of an arbitrary act of will creating an obligation is senseless *unless* you have a non-relative moral principle that one is bound by what one wills.

    Under moral relativism, the ideas of “positive potential” and “good for society” are also meaningless, since what’s “positive” and “good” is also relative.

    Moral relativism recognizes that the moral instinct exists, but seeks to bridle and control it through collective reasoning.
    Nothing of the kind.

  6. Adam,

    “This is logically impossible. The moral impulse, by definition, is a sense of *obligation* that is exterior to oneself”

    If you could follow this up with a sound argument, you will have solved some of the deepest questions in Philosophy. =:) Showing that anything is “…exterior to oneself” is a most interesting question in both philosophy and neuroscience.

  7. Stan,
    that’s what morality is, if it exists. Whether morality exists–and whether there actually is any external reality at all–is a question I leave to people who take that sort of thing seriously.

  8. Stan,

    I’m curious how you define morality here differently than what Adam is suggesting.

    Bear in mind, that one can define morality any way one wishes. But however you define it, expect me to bring it up again if you ever act contrary to that definition. It’s not uncommon for people to define morality one way and then act another in practice. But that is the whole point of my posts. Our intitutions for morality do seem to assume that there is some sort of objective obligation ‘out there’ that has some sort of demand upon us and others. Or at least that is how we actually treat it in practice no matter what we claim our beliefs are.

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