The Argument from Conscience

This is the fifteenth in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

Since moral subjectivism is very popular today, the following version of, or twist to, the moral argument should be effective, since it does not presuppose moral objectivism. Modern people often say they believe that there are no universally binding moral obligations, that we must all follow our own private conscience. But that very admission is enough of a premise to prove the existence of God.

Isn’t it remarkable that no one, even the most consistent subjectivist, believes that it is ever good for anyone to deliberately and knowingly disobey his or her own conscience? Even if different people’s consciences tell them to do or avoid totally different things, there remains one moral absolute for everyone: never disobey your own conscience.

Now where did conscience get such an absolute authority—an authority admitted even by the moral subjectivist and relativist? There are only four possibilities.

  1. From something less than me (nature)
  2. From me (individual)
  3. From others equal to me (society)
  4. From something above me (God)

Let’s consider each of these possibilities in order.

  1. How can I be absolutely obligated by something less than me—for example, by animal instinct or practical need for material survival?
  2. How can I obligate myself absolutely? Am I absolute? Do I have the right to demand absolute obedience from anyone, even myself? And if I am the one who locked myself in this prison of obligation, I can also let myself out, thus destroying the absoluteness of the obligation which we admitted as our premise.
  3. How can society obligate me? What right do my equals have to impose their values on me? Does quantity make quality? Do a million human beings make a relative into an absolute? Is “society” God?
  4. The only source of absolute moral obligation left is something superior to me. This binds my will, morally, with rightful demands for complete obedience.

Thus God, or something like God, is the only adequate source and ground for the absolute moral obligation we all feel to obey our conscience. Conscience is thus explainable only as the voice of God in the soul. The Ten Commandments are ten divine footprints in our psychic sand.

Addendum on Religion and Morality

In drawing this connection between morality and religion, we do not want to create any confusion or misunderstanding. We have not said that people can never discover human moral goods unless they acknowledge that God exists. Obviously they can. Believers and nonbelievers can know that knowledge and friendship, for example, are things that we really ought to strive for, and that cruelty and deceit are objectively wrong. Our question has been: which account of the way things really are best makes sense of the moral rules we all acknowledge—that of the believer or that of the non-believer?

If we are the products of a good and loving Creator, this explains why we have a nature that discovers a value that is really there. But how can atheists explain this? For if atheists are right, then no objective moral values can exist. Dostoyevsky said, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Atheists may know that some things are not permissible, but they do not know why.

Consider the following analogy. Many scientists examine secondary causes all their lives without acknowledging the First Cause, God. But, as we have seen, those secondary causes could not be without the First Cause, even though they can be known without knowing the First Cause. The same is true of objective moral goods. Thus the moral argument and the various metaphysical arguments share a certain similarity in structure.

Most of us, whatever our religious faith, or lack of it, can recognize that in the life of someone like Francis of Assisi human nature is operating the right way, the way it ought to operate. You need not be a theist to see that St. Francis’s life was admirable, but you do need to be a theist to see why. Theism explains that our response to this believer’s life is, ultimately, our response to the call of our Creator to live the kind of life he made us to live.

There are four possible relations between religion and morality, God and goodness.

  1. Religion and morality may be thought to be independent. Kierkegaard’s sharp contrast between “the ethical” and “the religious,” especially in Fear and Trembling, may lead to such a supposition. But (a) an amoral God, indifferent to morality, would not be a wholly good God, for one of the primary meanings of “good” involves the “moral”—just, loving, wise, righteous, holy, kind. And (b) such a morality, not having any connection with God, the Absolute Being, would not have absolute reality behind it.
  2. God may be thought of as the inventor of morality, as he is the inventor of birds. The moral law is often thought of as simply a product of God’s choice. This is the Divine Command Theory: a thing is good only because God commands it and evil because he forbids it. If that is all, however, we have a serious problem: God and his morality are arbitrary and based on mere power. If God commanded us to kill innocent people, that would become good, since good here means “whatever God commands.” The Divine Command Theory reduces morality to power. Socrates refuted the Divine Command Theory pretty conclusively in Plato’s Euthyphro. He asked Euthyphro, “Is a thing pious because the gods will it, or do the gods will it because it is pious?” He refuted the first alternative, and thought he was left with the second as the only alternative.
  3. But the idea that God commands a thing because it is good is also unacceptable, because it makes God conform to a law higher than himself, a law that overarches God and humanity alike. The God of the Bible is no more separated from moral goodness by being under it than he is by being over it. He no more obeys a higher law that binds him, than he creates the law as an artifact that could change and could well have been different, like a planet.
  4. The only rationally acceptable answer to the question of the relation between God and morality is the biblical one: morality is based on God’s eternal nature. That is why morality is essentially unchangeable. “I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Our obligation to be just, kind, honest, loving and righteous “goes all the way up” to ultimate reality, to the eternal nature of God, to what God is. That is why morality has absolute and unchangeable binding force on our conscience.

The only other possible sources of moral obligation are:

  • My ideals, purposes, aspirations, and desires, something created by my mind or will, like the rules of baseball. This utterly fails to account for why it is always wrong to disobey or change the rules.
  • My moral will itself. Some read Kant this way: I impose morality on myself. But how can the one bound and the one who binds be the same? If the locksmith locks himself in a room, he is not really locked in, for he can also unlock himself.
  • Another human being may be thought to be the one who imposes morality on me—my parents, for example. But this fails to account for its binding character. If your father commands you to deal drugs, your moral obligation is to disobey him. No human being can have absolute authority over another.
  • “Society” is a popular answer to the question of the origin of morality “this or that specific person” is a very unpopular answer. Yet the two are the same. “Society” only means more individuals. What right do they have to legislate morality to me? Quantity cannot yield quality; adding numbers cannot change the rules of a relative game to the rightful absolute demands of conscience.
  • The universe, evolution, natural selection and survival all fare even worse as explanations for morality. You cannot get more out of less. The principle of causality is violated here. How could the primordial slime pools gurgle up the Sermon on the Mount?

Atheists often claim that Christians make a category mistake in using God to explain nature. They say it is like the Greeks using Zeus to explain lightning. In fact, lightning should be explained on its own level, as a material, natural, scientific phenomenon. The same with morality. Why bring in God?

Because morality is more like Zeus than like lightning. Morality exists only on the level of persons, spirits, souls, minds, wills—not mere molecules. You can make correlations between moral obligations and persons (e.g., persons should love other persons), but you cannot make any correlations between morality and molecules. No one has even tried to explain the difference between good and evil in terms, for example, of the difference between heavy and light atoms.

So it is really the atheist who makes the same category mistake as the ancient pagan who explained lightning by the will of Zeus. The atheist uses a merely material thing to explain a spiritual thing. That is a far sillier version of the category mistake than the one the ancients made; for it is possible that the greater (Zeus, spirit) caused the lesser (lightning) and explains it; but it is not possible that the lesser (molecules) adequately caused and explains the greater (morality). A good will might create molecules, but how could molecules create a good will? How can electricity obligate me? Only a good will can demand a good will; only Love can demand love.

As I said before, you absolutely can get more out of less, and evolution in fact proves this. We can show that morality is a mixture of nature and nurture, no god required. Amazingly, scientists appear to have discovered the physical conscience as well. As for how nature or society can obligate a human to act a certain way, we may as well ask how nature can obligate fish to swim or birds (not the invention of god but the evolution of dinosaurs, by the way) to fly. We may as well ask how the training of a K9 officer obligates dogs to sniff out drugs. We may as well ask how the young male bonobo is obligated to not kill the infant bonobo (he knows he would be beaten for doing so). A fish can choose not to swim, a bird can choose not to fly, a dog can choose not to point out drugs (I assume), and a bonobo can choose to kill a baby, but because it is in their nature to swim, fly, and obey trainer or society, they rarely do so. Similarly, a human can choose to kill another, but it is normally our nature to avoid that because of our empathy.

A far worse problem for these arguments from morality, however, is that morality has changed, even in Christianity. In the Old Testament, beating slaves within an inch of their lives was acceptable (Exodus 21:20-21) because they were not seen as people, and women were treated as property for largely the same reason. Now, we recognize that all humans are people capable of suffering, and that it is wrong to cause it. Indeed, most of us have also recognized that (most?) animals are also capable of suffering and it is therefore wrong to torture them. If a religious view were true, especially the Christian religious view, we should have expected Christians to be the first to realize blacks are people, too, and therefore worthy of being more than slaves or at best servants. If a religious view were true, especially the Christian religious view, we should have expected Christians to be the first to realize that homosexuals are people, too, and therefore worthy of dignity and love. Instead, in both cases, Christians have been one of the groups holding on to their right to persecute, and for religious reasons. I trust I need not prove that the Westboro Baptist Church exists, but I will point to this article to show that Christians used Christianity to persecute black people as recently as a few decades ago.

In short, if you are going to argue that morality comes from your god, you need to answer why slavery was once morally acceptable to your god and now is not. Pointing to the culture of the time isn’t good enough, because that implies that you accept the atheistic position of morality coming from nature and society. A god as good as Christianity claims could have created at least one society that did not require slavery and even forbade it. Indeed, looking to India, we find a religion that specifically forbids violence and injury: Jainism. Surely that is a far greater moral starting point than a list of rules from a god who sometimes orders genocide, and Jainism is hardly newer than Judaism.


4 thoughts on “The Argument from Conscience

  1. Asimov said, “Never let your conscience get in the way of doing what’s right.”

    I think that’s deeper, and more profound, than Kreeft’s entire ramble.

    1. I certainly agree with that.

      Of course, Kreeft would just say, “That means you accept an objective morality, so you must accept a lawgiver!” and take it as a triumph. That’s why I pointed out that nature obligates fish to swim.

      1. The hilarious thing about that response is that it doesn’t automatically imply objective morality. I would rather take it as an implication that you should at least entertain skepticism regarding what you hold as moral truths.

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