If apologetics should be anything, I think it should be honest. I’d rather say, “I can’t prove God to you” than try to prove God with a rationale that I know is false or that doesn’t hold water. And the “moral argument” is one of those rationales that I think needs to vanish from people’s playbook on faith.
What is the moral argument? It’s the argument that we’re wired for objective morality, and that this objective morality proves that there’s a lawgiver, a God. (If you want to see a blog post where someone argues the moral argument, click here.)
I don’t know if it is the case that Christians who argue for the moral argument by and large have never heard about secular understandings and theories about where morality originates, but just in case that might be true, I’d like to introduce something called “social contract theory” to discussion. Social contract theory basically states that the reason that humans understand a relative common standard of morality (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t harm) is because it is necessary for human society to function and exist for there to be some common “rules of the road.” In fact, traffic rules are a good analogy: are we going to argue that the reason we have relatively standard traffic rules in most developed countries in the world is because God gave us traffic rules? Or did traffic rules arise because people figured out pretty quickly through trial and error what rules each driver could abide by that would make the entire system work for everyone on the road at once?
When you drive, the one objective everyone has is to get from point A to point B without getting killed. Secondly, arriving in an optimum time frame AND not getting killed is ideal. Thus, there needed to be rules for say, intersections, where everyone could pass through the dangerous place where two roads connect and not get killed. It turns out, that if you make rules where everyone is working to keep from getting killed, you simultaneously are making rules where killing others is outlawed. Thus, making sure that others stop at red lights not only means that you can be reasonably assured of getting through an intersection safely while others have the red light, but also, for the system to work you too must stop at red lights. Thus, universal morality – or as we say, “objective morality” – is achieved.
The reason we feel certain things are wrong is because we don’t want them done to us. Humans are wired for self-preservation, and we are also likewise wired for empathy. Objective morality arises because we all have similar drives and pain receptors and concerns – thus, society agrees (and evolves with time and the complexity of civilization) to cater to human concerns. These concerns are generally those in our best interest as a whole, and promote the survival of our species. (We often don’t care about the survival of other species’ terribly much, until it becomes evident that their well-being is also linked to our well-being, and then that also becomes part of our ‘objective morality’ with time.)
One of the biggest problems with the moral argument is that it erroneously teaches that atheists and other unbelievers in regards to the Judeo-Christian faith are inherently less moral, or even amoral, compared to those who believe in God. While I’d like to root for the “home team” and agree with this premise, I have to cry foul – because it’s just not true. Atheists are bound by social contract in the same exact way that Judeo-Christians are. Now while the locus of motivation for moral behavior may differ both from person to person and from group mindset to group mindset, aka, some people’s motivations will be based on internalized morals (whether to please God or to feel good about oneself) while others will be more concerned with group pressures and even just “what they can get away with”, the fact remains that social contract affects everyone regardless of faith. Faith will modify the details of what a society thinks the contract should look like; but overall, basic morality is based on survival and empathy, two psychological and biologically based impetuses.
At this point, I would make one small nod to history and note that Hammurabi’s Code predates the Law of Moses – and while the details of the two laws are different at many points, it should be realized that the similarities are striking considering that two different religious faiths were behind them each. Now, I’m NOT saying that God, in His infinite beauty and wisdom, did not cause all these things to come about in a way that those who know Him can’t behold and see as His handiwork, both in societies untouched by Judeo-Christian ethics, and those informed by the Torah. But ascribing natural processes to God as His handiwork is fodder for the edification of hearts already convinced, and not so much for use as proof for unbelievers.
Now, aside from all of this, I do think it’s somewhat unhealthy that Christians in particular are prone at times to wanting to argue that their faith is the origin of morality – after all, the Old Testament contains much that is morally questionable by any “objective morality” and secondly, the Christian faith actually is not primarily ABOUT morality. The obsession Christians have with posting the 10 Commandments for instance in the United States’ public areas seems to display a wrongly emphasized concern with promoting morality as the heart of Jesus’s message, rather than the actual gospel message of love and self-sacrifice, which is considerably different from mere ‘morality.’ But that distinction should be for a different posting; suffice it to say, I think the moral argument is a red herring when it comes to proving God or Jesus to anyone.