Claiming Objective Morality Sans An Objective Source

By Michael Hawkins

Is it possible for a believer in objective evil to determine what actually is evil without either invoking his god (or claimed objective standard) or undermining his entire position? Here is an examination of that question.

For the sake of expediency, “God”, here, can refer to any deity of a belief structure which is viewed as creating some ultimate standard for evil. This includes polytheistic belief structures in many cases. “Evil” can usually be read to include both good and evil.

Here’s the common stance: In order to determine what is ultimately right or wrong, one must make an appeal to a source which has final standing. Without such an appeal, right or wrong has no universal meaning, only local meaning, and that is ultimately meaningless. (On an aside, that only addresses the value of local meaning on a universal scale – something obviously addressed simply in terminology. It says nothing of the local value of local meaning.)

With this stance comes some questions. If that ultimate source is necessary for ultimate right or wrong (and exists), how can one know what he/she/it has to say on any given human moral affair? Is it possible for one to have access to all this source has to say? Are humans limited in access?

The common answer to the first question comes in the form of holy texts. The Torah, Bible, and Koran are “the big three”. They give specific decrees on things that are right and wrong while claiming to be from God. In them murder is universally wrong. Theft, sex before marriage, dishonoring one’s parents. All, and many more, are described throughout these books. They and other holy texts act as the most direct source to knowing what is right or wrong as declared by an ultimate source.

The second question is where moral claims by believers run into trouble. Is it possible to have access to all an ultimate source has to say by virtue of holy texts? Obviously not. It isn’t possible for all moral situations and conundrums to be addressed via individual books. More directly, not all such instances are actually addressed.

So does this limit human access to this ultimate information? If holy texts account for the only manner by which one can attain such knowledge, then yes. If there are alternative routes, then those must by explored. Meditation, inference, and prayer offer the most promising paths. But first it is necessary to tie everything together.

The accuracy of any declaration on right or wrong is called into question in any holy text since they are all written by fallible human beings. This must be acknowledged for the sake of truth-seeking. However, for the sake of argumentation, it will be necessary to side-step the issue. Instead, the focus must go on to the second question. The possibility of having access to everything God has to say is nil if holy texts are the only source. What this importantly means is that if a moral issue arises which is not addressed within any holy text, then it is not possible for a believer to make an objective stance. One topical issue can be grabbed from the headlines to make the point.

Abortion is not addressed in any of the big three holy texts. Vague passages can be interpreted as such (much like Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who” has been abused), but nothing is ever really said. This means that if a believer is to make a claim that abortion is objectively evil (remember, or good) here, he has no ground on which to stand. At least he has no ground by his own position that objective evil must come from an objective source. By chance he may be right that his objective source believes abortion is evil (he has a 50/50 shot, afterall), but his determination is based upon some other source. What that source may be or is bears no importance here. It is enough to say that it is emphatically not God.

For the further sake of expediency, it should be readily pointed out that even should abortion prove to be the wrong example for this exercise (though it isn’t), then others abound. Is capitalism evil? Communism? Social security? Even wearing mismatched socks? No holy text says anything of these issues or a number of others.

Back to the third question, human access may not be limited to just holy texts if meditation, inference, and prayer are options. These all fail, however. Should meditation and prayer reveal any information on a moral question, they are not valid beyond the targeted person. While it is possible that God revealed that something is objectively evil to a particular person, that largely argues for a local meaning. That is, Susie may know that it is objectively evil to spin in circles after sunset because God told her, but that information is entirely reliant upon Susie – the standard can only be determined to be subjective (even if it really is objective). As for inference, that can only be done using holy texts or prayer in the first place. So let us not forget the very first question: is it possible to determine what is objectively evil without invoking God. Susie may have an alternative source, but it is still God. She may be able to infer from what God has revealed, but she still must invoke his existence.

So what if a believer says “X is objectively evil” but has no holy text or revelation to back up such a claim? That is, there is no source which says “This is what God says about this issue” and there is no source which could directly indicate what God says. How can the believer then say something is objectively evil? This necessarily undermines his entire premise. If something can be determined to be objectively evil without first invoking God, then there is some other method by which the believer is making his statement. He obviously cannot logically maintain saying he knows objective standards exist because God exists and God exists because objective standards exist.

In short, no, a believer cannot “determine what actually is evil without either invoking his god (or claimed objective standard) or undermining his entire position”. He must invoke his god or undermine his whole argument. As has been demonstrated, he must cite his god (or objective standard). He often cannot do that. In those situations if he then says he has determined that something is objectively evil anyway, he is either wrong or he has admitted that his objective standard is not actually necessary for purposes here.

On a final note (one for clarification), this argument can be applied to any declaration on evil by a believer in objective standards. If it is necessary for objectiveness to exist in order for evil to exist, then the position is still undermined whenever a believer declares something evil without any sort of source beyond himself. The argument is precisely the same, but the terms are clarified: “evil” always means “objective evil” in the given context.