In everyday life, people use the word “should” to indicate a meaningful difference between what is and what ought to be, as though that difference were more than human preference. While there’s little correspondence between professed belief and moral character, fleshing out the basis of such “should” statements prevents talk about truth from being an elaborate word game and justice from being negotiated power (a term borrowed from Peter Kreeft).
Only if universal “is” and “ought” are reconciled in a creator can we justly say that brains were intended to prefer truth over error. Absent this hypothesis, and “universal obligations” are reduced to “personal preferences”; the proponents of all ethical systems become hypocritical tyrants. If truth is only what’s provable, who’s proven that definition of truth to render it true? There’s no falsifying falsifiability.
A naturalistic universe, C.S Lewis argued, leaves no “oughtness” for believing itself or anything to be true or morally necessary; all beliefs and judgements are products of natural forces — the “results of other bodily states,” in HWB Joseph’s words. “By what right can I hold that my thought is knowledge of what is real in bodies?” For that’s “but another thought, an effect of real bodily movements like the rest”.
Ultimately, there’s no use judging human judgements and decisions except for congruency against an intelligent creator’s thoughts and judgments. What else is McKaiser doing when he says human laws could and should be better?
We could call this hypothetical creator a tyrant for starting this universe up and imposing his/her/its perspective on us. We’d immediately rescind our right to hold one another to any universal standard. We could abstractify truth and justice when logic says they need a mind and will to exist in above ours. But talk of how some actions are “inherently right”, without a God underwriting the moral universe, spreads the problem of the basis of morality out over normativities. As with naturalism, locating the ultimate basis for morality inside a universe that did not make itself (as entropy and our mortality suggest) is imposing an “ought” over an “is”.
If cause is greater than effect, then the basis of what we call integrity should be holy. Even if the contents of morality are up for debate, the debate presupposes those unknown contents are as universal as their basis is absolute. This basis may favour human flourishing while transcending human preference. “Morals are relative,” some say. But unless they mean there’s an absolute imperative (e.g. love) interpreted relative to different circumstances, they can’t formulate or live relativism out with consistency.
Many atheists and agnostics I discuss these problems with sneer and, ironically, make moral judgements about me. How? Their moral frameworks begin at what can be proven (the “is”). How do they overreach into ethics (what “ought” to be) enough to get troubled by my theism?
“Life took millions of evolutionary steps to get here; it ought to be treated as sacred,” they say. This prescription is super-mundane; the description preceding it is mundane. They stack large quantities of what are (from our perspective) impressive facts, then shuffle that impressiveness together into a qualitative moral imperative. Their words betray them, simultaneously concealing and revealing belief in the transcendent.
“Do you agree that life’s struggles to get where it is make it worthy of continued existence?” Me: “I’d agree, but that could mean E. coli’s or cockroaches’ struggle to spread makes them worthy of existence. Where would this put humans on the food chain?” Them: “You’re being deliberately obtuse, pretending to not ‘get it’.”
But what is “it”? If it’s a moral option from materialistic processes, why’s it mentioned in hushed tones? If a social contract, shouldn’t society offer people an easy exit? A scientific theory must be falsifiable to be taken seriously; likewise, a moral basis must be spit-in-the-face-able because morality without freedom is not morality: it’s a naturalistic hallucination or bureaucracy or both.
While theists come short on “provability”, atheists and agnostics borrow logical consistency through arguments that presuppose a congruous moral universe, even when they demand proof from theists. But once such a demand exceeds the demand for consistency within oneself, proof will be twisted into fodder for pre-existing intellectual commitments anyway.
We can use philosophy to approach reality as a comprehensible whole, reconciling “wave-particle” dualities in physics the way theologians reconcile “fully-human/fully-God” conundrums on the assumption that actual contradictions iron themselves out of existence. Or we can admit that chaos mocks us from the start.
The way we think about God is upstream the way we think about everything downstream. Absent God, and McKaiser’s prescription for intellectual virtue becomes too tame. If the quest for an integrated world view absurdly arises from a prank played by no one, the proper response isn’t humility — it’s insanity, philosophical despair, nihilism.
The only joy we can have is at the winning side of negotiated power, for might is the only right there is. We’re all jilted fiancées stranded at existential wedding altars if there was never a groom — if there was never a God. DM