In the moral argument, dealt with in the last post, the second premise is that real, objective moral obligations exist. Non-believers tend to react to this claim with a wide range of non-sequiturs. Pointing out that not everyone agrees about morality, or that people in different cultures have different values, or that lots of people who don’t believe in God are nevertheless moral all miss the point. The believer’s claim here is that whether everyone acknowledges it or not, moral claims like “rape is wrong,” “genocide is evil,” “generosity and love are virtues” are true. It is also a mistake to argue that there are some cases where many things that seem good are not, or that actions that seem to be evil may be necessary. Those instances don’t suggest that there is no truth about the matter, only that it isn’t simple.
But let’s consider what non-circular grounds one might have for thinking that the claim is true. Even if people everywhere seemed to agree about some fundamental moral values, that might be consistent with the claim, but it won’t provide much support. More often, believers consult a powerful sense that they have that certain things are wrong and others are right. Call it gut instinct, moral intuition, a sixth sense, or an innate sense of right and wrong.
I won’t deny that many people have such a thing. And as Stephen Pinker and other moral psychologists make clear, these are distinct feelings from sentiments, judgments of taste, or raw emotions. With taste or emotions, we confine our sensation to our own experience. I might find oysters disgusting, but I don’t think it’s wrong for you to eat them. With moral judgments, however, my sense of the matter goes beyond me. We feel that if someone else violates these principles, then they deserve to be punished or reprimanded. They haven’t merely done something that I find disturbing or upsetting. The sensation is that they have violated something larger than my feelings about the matter and it needs to be set right.
What could a reasonable person infer from these sorts of sensations? From the inside, could one tell whether or not they are innate? I don’t think so. One might expect innate feelings to always be present, and that they would not shift or change. But in fact, for most people, a distinct sense of right and wrong comes rather late in their development. And they tend to drift over the years. Consider how attitudes about homosexuality have shifted or smoking. But that’s all consistent with some sort of innate faculty, however.
From the inside, could one tell if one’s moral sentiments were from God? They might feel like they are. One might have an overwhelming sense that God wants X or God disapproves of Y. It may even seem like God is talking to you. And we should acknowledge that people can have some persuasive experiences that are very hard to deny.
Since one is not able to independently confirm the source of these sensations, figuring out what’s going on becomes a matter of carefully considering all of the competing, alternative hypotheses that would explain it. Let’s grant that God’s installing an innate, inuitive sense of morality is one of the explanations on the table. What about others?
Here’s the crucial question: if 4 billion years of evolution had cultivated a strong set of moral dispositions such as fairness, sensitivity to pain or harm to oneself and others, respect for authority, and so on, what would it feel like to be subject to those feelings? It would feel innate, immediate and distinct. From the inside, I can’t see how one would be able to distinguish whether evolution or God was the source of the moral intuitions. And the same goes for the wide range of other hypotheses that are often raised to explain them.
Furthermore, the evidence is mounting that just those moral sentiments and some others are present in a wide range of non-human animals. Monkeys show accute sensitivity to standards of fairness. Monkeys, rats, and others feel the pain of others as if it were contagious. Rats will starve themselves rather than eat if their eating seems to inflict electric shocks on another rat. The examples go on. And as for hearing the voice of one’s moral conscience, or even God himself, a recent study concluded that as many as 70% of undergraduates had experienced auditory hallucinations.
The God explanation might have been sufficient 500 years ago, if one knew no better and had no other explanations available. But now, knowing what we know, one can’t simply conclude upon having a strong gut instinct about some moral matter that God is responsible. Furthermore, given the flexibility of these sentiments, their drift over time, and their known fallibility, the naturalistic hypothesis fits much better. Also notice that if one is seeking to show the existence of God from moral intuitions as evidence, then it won’t do to intuit that God is the author of the feelings. We don’t have any more reason to assume that that intuition is correct than the others. And it would be foolish to argue, perhaps like Descartes, that I have a powerful idea that God exists. I also have a powerful idea that God would guarantee the truth of my powerful ideas. Therefore, God must actually exist.