Author: Phillip Jensen
Moral judgements are being made in our society in most conversations. Newspapers, radio commentators, private conversation, university lectures, corporate decisions – all involve moral judgements. They can be the moral judgements on politicians or international affairs, or about ideals and practices such as abortions, homosexuality and euthanasia. As people evaluate the issues of life, they turn their evaluations into moral statements.
For the Christian, moral judgements are a marvellous way into evangelistic opportunities. This is because moral judgements are the symptoms of atheistic confusion and inconsistency. It is at this point that the Christian world view and the non-Christian world view touch each other – like the world’s tangents touching the truth circle of faith. We must be prepared to give answer and to raise questions about these evaluations.
1 Three levels of Christian argument
The Christian can argue about morality at three different levels: God’s word; intuition; utility.
a God’s word
Ultimately God is the source of all morality. What he declares to be right and good and true is always right and good and true. It is God’s word which teaches us the true evaluations of life.
The world is created in accordance with God’s character. His values are expressed in creation. Being a fallen world and being sinful people, God’s values are distorted. However, there is still a residual intuition about right and wrong to which the Christian can appeal. Creation declares the glory of God and mankind can see His existence and power. Therefore man should give him thanks and honour for who he is and what he has done.
The third level of moral argument is that of utility. Because God has created the world to be inhabited by man his ways are always functionally best. Thus there is much profit in living God’s way. Lying, cheating, greed, jealousy are all counter-productive. Accordingly love, joy, peace, patience, etc. make for harmony within society and happiness within individuals.
2 Sharing moral arguments
The Christian and the non-Christian can share in moral argument. It is possible for the Christian and the non-Christian to agree upon the utility of any moral stance. Both the Christian and non-Christian agree that stealing is bad because of its destructive force upon society.
The Christian and the non Christian can also agree on the level of intuition. Basically the non-Christian will say stealing is wrong because it is wrong rather than because it has bad effects. Whether this is society’s teaching, the influence of the church, or some God given instinct does not matter very much. There is, within our society, a sense in which there is “right” and there is “wrong”, and that right should be done and wrong shouldn’t. Notice for example the appeal to natural justice or to equality or to fairness.
However, it is when the Christian appeals to God’s word that it is hardest to share with a non-Christian. Many people believe in things such as the Ten Commandments. Thus they allow the word of God to give content to their intuitions about morality. However, many will reject the authority of God’s word in moral decision making.
3 Disagreeing about morality
While the Christian and non Christian can share much moral argument, frequently there is disagreement. It is hard to prove or disprove the utility of any decision. Even fairly clear-cut cases such as stealing are hard to prove conclusively in a utilitarian debate. It is possible, for example, that people will argue that the problem lies not in stealing but in the notion of private property. Thus the argument goes: “If all property was communal there would be no need for a law against stealing. In fact, the idea of stealing would disappear. Thus our society would be seen to be more generous and kind, non-competitive and unselfish.”
Likewise the arguments about intuitive morality are endless. I may think that advertising cigarettes is immoral but you may think that censorship is even more immoral. Thus little agreement can be reached as to whether cigarette advertising should be allowed or censored.
4 The non-Christian arguments for morality
Most non-Christians never consider the basis for moral argument. For a variety of reasons they like or do not like certain actions, and they clothe their likes and dislikes in moral language. By using moral language, one can appeal to an absolute verdict which has much greater force than my personal likes or dislikes. It even carries a sense of objective reality. Rather than saying “I don’t like what they are doing to this man”, we say, “This is a denial of natural justice!” Furthermore, it excuses me from giving any reasons or rational defence of my opinions. “It is immoral” is an appeal to authority which is unquestionable.
Many issues are discussed in these moral terms. The war in Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq, apartheid, racism, industrial disputes, law cases against judges, whaling, nuclear disarmament etc. etc. In the midst of intellectual reasoning on each or any of these issues we find the appeal to morality. Because of the second level of Christian moral argument, namely intuition, the appeal to morality has great power in our society. People know there is a right and wrong and are committed to upholding moral viewpoints. If at the same time these moral viewpoints can be buttressed with utilitarian arguments so much the better.
However, when the non-Christian engages in discussion about the basis of morality his position falls apart. If there is no God, there is no statement of his values for the world. If the world was not created by God but is a gigantic cosmic accident, there is no meaning, value or purpose written into the creation. There are no grounds for our intuition. Our intuitions of moral right and wrong are only an expression of our social conditioning – the mechanisms of our superiors in their attempts to control us. The only level of argument left is that of utility. Not only is this very difficult to prove (for who knows the outcome of an event before the event) but impossible to determine. On what basis can we say that this is for the “best” if there is no such thing as “best”.
Thus the non-Christian is often guilty of the “naturalistic fallacy”. This is the argument from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. It is a great logical fallacy. Finish the statement “There is a green tree therefore you ought to …. “. It is possible to write anything in that unfinished statement, but not with any logical certainty. It is possible to say “You ought to chop it down, or you ought to fertilize it, or you ought to play tiddlywinks!”. The fact that there is something implies nothing that you ought to do.
The non-Christian is committed to the view that the world is and therefore you ought! Their commitment to the non-purposeful existence of the universe is a commitment to a totally amoral universe. Therefore, any appeal to morality is illogical.
5 The Christian/non-Christian apologetic argument
When Christians enter into discussion with non-Christians about morality, they nearly always approach it badly. We tend to disagree about the content of morality rather than the basis of morality. This is to disagree about the symptoms rather than the disease.
In a discussion or a public debate, a moral view such as “Pornography is good and censorship is bad” may be put forward. The Christian addresses the issue of morality and censorship. The Christian will tend to be opposed to pornography and therefore argue for censorship. As soon as the Christian puts forward his moral argument the non-Christian goes for the Christian jugular! The non-Christian asks “Upon what basis do you make your statements?” The Christian may at first appeal to utility and argue about social consequences in pack rape cases etc. However, you can never win the utility argument. The non-Christian comes back with arguments about catharsis and reduced sex crimes in Denmark and so we trade statistics for statistics. It is impossible to bring out the long-term social consequences and so the argument bogs down to nothing.
The Christian then appeals to the instinctive, intuitive morality of the issue: “Surely it is degenerate to use people, abuse women, and distort sexuality.” Many non-Christians know that this is right but in a discussion or a public debate and in their own context of wanting greater sexual freedom they will ask you to give a rational basis for your intuition. The very nature of your intuition is that you cannot give rational basis for it except by appealing to God. Your moral argument – (“It is wrong”) is turned into “I don’t like it”. They argue that they do like it and they don’t like your narrow-minded, legalistic, inhibited, sexually hung-up, self-opinionated arrogance. Thus you are driven back to God’s statements; but as the non-Christian does not believe in God or his statements, he refuses to listen.
The mistake the Christian has made in this discussion is to enter into the content of morality rather than the basis of morality. We then are put on the defensive and are shown to have no agreement with our opponent on the nature of morality. Rather, we should go on the offensive in order to point out that not just that the non-Christian has no agreement with us on the basis of morality, but more importantly the non-Christian has no basis for morality at all!
6 The strategies of argument
It is important for Christians to learn the power of the question, especially when it comes to relating to our intellectual superiors and our teachers. To ask “Why?”, “How do you know?”, “What is the basis for this?” does not commit you to defend anything and requires very little education. However, it is very powerful in pinpointing and exposing the weakness of the non-Christian alternative.
What we are aiming to do in our apologetics is to shine torches into the holes and caves that non-Christians hide in so as to expose their foolishness and bring them to face the gospel message. We can never prove the truth of the gospel so as to argue somebody into the kingdom of God. Repentance is a spiritual matter and faith comes from hearing the word of God. However, we can show the unreasonableness of the non-Christian position and commend the reasonableness of belief in Christ.
Thus in moral argument, rather than disagreeing about the content, we should seek to ask questions about the basis of the content. In the discussion or public debate above we could say: “Granted that censorship is wrong and that pornography is all right, how can we demonstrate that such a view is logical or correct?” We mustn’t get drawn into saying that censorship is right or pornography wrong, but rather ask for a reasoned defence of the non-Christian viewpoint. At this point it is the non-Christian who must firstly give the utilitarian argument. Now it is the Christians opportunity to raise questions about the certainty of utilitarian statistics. How can we be sure of the long term effects of pornography? Even if the first 5 years reduces sex crimes can we be sure that 30 years later community attitudes towards women will not have been affected.
But we can push beyond the utilitarian argument fairly easily. We can ask the question “How can we be sure that reducing sex crimes is a good thing?” At this point the Christian needs considerable courage for he knows in his bones that sex crimes are an appalling thing. However, he is engaged in intellectual questioning in which he has taken his opponent’s viewpoint for granted in order to expose its failures and inadequacies. The non-Christian finds the question equally appalling. For the non-Christian also knows in his bones that sex crimes are a dreadful wrong. However, now the non-Christian has to defend the basis of his intuitive morality. There is, of course, no rational basis for this intuitive morality if God hasn’t created us. Thus the non-Christian flounders about with arguments such as “Where would the world be if we all acted like that?” or “It is obvious that everybody should be treated fairly” or “Would you like to be treated like that?” These are the arguments of desperation. Morality has been reduced purely to practicalities and personal opinion. Now is the time to conclude that all moral arguments are an expression of self-centredness; i.e. “good” equals “I like” and “bad” equals “I don’t like”.
While logically the non-Christian can accept the view that morality doesn’t exist, intuitively he finds this position uncomfortable and unsatisfactory. It is often helpful at this point to show that the problem lies in the naturalistic fallacy. His difficulty is that he lives with a Christian hang over. The ideas of good and bad come from God, and having cut his links with God, he has no right to retain the concepts of good and bad. If God is dead then we are free to do anything that we wish. If this creates a world that is a nightmare – so be it. To try and regain order in the godless world is a meaningless contradiction. It is a failure to come to terms with our own professed faith in godlessness. That a non-Christian has moral qualms about seeing their mother become a prostitute is a demonstration of their total inconsistency of thought, or of the unliveability and stupidity of their godless presuppositions.
7 The danger of claiming too much
So far the argument that has been advanced is one that is related to the non Christian semi-atheistic, agnostic Australian. Naturally if you are dealing with a person with a religious viewpoint, whatever it may be – Muslim, Hindu there may be a theological basis for the morality that they hold.
Even with the agnostic Australian this argument does not prove the existence of God. It can be devalued: “Your religion is just a social mechanism for the establishment of morality and the control of the masses.” What it aims at doing is shining a torch into the cave that agnostics try to hide in. It exposes their inconsistency and/or the weakness and unliveability of their position. Yet, if someone wishes to remain in the cave, claiming that the world has no morality or meaning or purpose, then there is no possibility of a meaningful, purposeful, valuable discussion by which they can be encouraged to come out.
A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.