Why is it, I wonder, that all people in all cultures have a sense of right and wrong, a sense of virtue, of moral obligation or duty? Only human beings have this sense, this conscience. Can the universal fact of human morality result from purely natural, mechanical, or chemical processes that produce such a phenomenon? Or to put it another way, if there is no God, and if this present reality is nothing more than biochemical and mechanical processes at work, would moral obligations make any sense?
In the Darwinian model of reality, we are animal creatures whose only imperative is to live and reproduce (without purpose or teleology). Our success in passing along our genes to one generation and to another and another is the only thing that matters. How can this explain the morality felt by all human beings? Where do we get this sense of virtue and our satisfaction from virtuous acts?
I am briefly suggesting that our best explanation for this is theism. There are four aspects of moral reality to consider: moral facts, moral knowledge, moral transformation, and moral rationality (virtue and happiness fit together).
What I am suggesting is that we begin by agreeing that people have a moral sense, and that they see things in terms of “right and wrong.” Generally, people respect virtue and are favorable toward virtuous actions. Yes, certain people, from a defective, antisocial personality, don’t see that, or don’t see it in a way most people would consider healthy and moral. Those are exceptions. But as a rule, people are revulsed by suffering (even animal suffering). They have pity on those in distress, they come to the aid of people in trouble, they believe we ought not to lie, cheat, or steal, and they take their promises seriously.
Most people do not fall into the cynicism and nihilism of Nietzsche and others like him in the world (remember, Nietzsche went insane). But if this world is it, and if we are nothing better than reptilian, there is no explanation for this. There is no reason for any animal, even the “human animal,” to have morals, to be virtuous, or to subordinate self-interest to any other cause. There would be no rational explanation for Horatius at the Bridge, the soldier who is willing to fall on a hand grenade, the person who risks his life to save a drowning stranger, the family that shares its meager food with others, or, yes, the neighbor who donates a kidney to a dying man. These things are what we mean by moral facts that call for an explanation, which I suggest naturalism cannot provide.
On the second prong of the thought process, moral knowledge, how do we know anything about morality in the first place? Where does moral knowledge come from? We have the fact of moral understanding as noted above, things we “know deep down.” We know of no purely naturalistic, biochemical or mechanical process that would produce such knowledge. Yes, our parents, teachers, and others impart these things to us. But if we look back far enough some original human beings first obtained this knowledge that is passed down the generations. It is hard to see any nontheistic explanation for that.
What about the process of moral transformation, that is, the sense we all have that we want and need to be better and do better and attain a state of moral uprightness, even moral perfection? Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography writes of his youthful attempt to live a morally perfect life. He tried. But soon things intruded. He felt the pull of impulses and desires that warred against his resolve, and he soon concluded he could not do it, at least not of his own will power and strength. I am not perfect and have never met a perfect person, yet I feel the desire to “be good” and more than good. If we are mere biochemical amalgamations there would be no reason for us to care about this. There’s no reason to think beetles care about this.
But if we are beings made in the image of a creator and sustainer God, that would be a reasonable explanation for the pull of conscience. What we are looking for here is how to make sense of these phenomena. Human beings are valuable because they are made in the image of God, and our sense of right and wrong affirms this consciously or otherwise.
Lastly, what about moral rationality, happiness, joy, and peace? That is, does virtue cohere with happiness and fulfillment? Sometimes the “right” thing and the desired thing will come into conflict. We want to steal that cookie, we want to cheat on our taxes, we want to tell a lie to escape shame or punishment, we want to seduce our neighbor’s attractive wife. Leaving aside the possible secular and legal repercussions of following such desires, what would make sense of foregoing giving in to the desire unless it would be our greater happiness, our better satisfaction, at knowing we did the right thing? The ancient philosophers taught that virtue produced satisfaction. From a naturalistic point of view, when the tension arises between caring about ourselves and caring about others, there is no reason not to indulge ourselves. But if there is a God, a good and loving God who assures the ultimate happiness and joy of those who do right, then it makes perfect sense.
So, the cumulative weight of these moral considerations, I would humbly suggest, really gives us something to think about. It calls for serious reflection on the sources and reasons for our moral imperatives. For me such considerations lead to the conclusion the Christian God who creates us in his image, sustains us and draws us to himself makes the best explanation of these facts. That in turn leads us to consider what that God says to us about being reconciled to him, in the face of our failure or inability to live up to the moral standards we perceive. The answer, the only answer, is, through faith in Jesus Christ and the sure hope of an eternal future in which we are transformed.