Hear No Evil?

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” – Richard Dawkins[1]

“… [H]uman beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” – C.S. Lewis[2]

No really, the light was green...

I vividly remember, many years ago, pulling up to the crosswalk on Duke University’s beautiful Gothic campus on an even more beautiful day. I noticed a woman waiting for her chance to cross, and so I stopped and waved her across. Right as she was in front of my car, the thought raced across my mind for only the briefest second: “What if I just hit the gas right now?” There was a sort of perverse humor in the dichotomy of the idea that I would signify for her to go ahead, and then immediately hit her with my car. As I waited for her to cross, I also remember being horrified that the thought had ever entered my mind, even if it was an obviously impossible act for me to commit. Where had such an idea come from, and what did it mean that I was capable of such a thought, if not necessarily the action it represented? This was only one of a number of times that I have been extremely thankful that my mere thoughts are not exposed for the world to see.

Now, say that I took the “joke” a step farther, and revved my engine as she passed in front of me, just to see the look on her face. She scowls at me, but is suddenly clipped by a car coming in the opposite direction that doesn’t see her. The driver in the other car has caused her serious injury, while I have done little more than annoy her, and yet most everyone on the planet will agree that I am the one who has offended the “Law of Nature,” as Lewis calls it above, or the Moral Law, as it is more commonly known. We are all aware of this Law, and we hold an indignant belief that everyone should abide by it. Many people will object that morality is subjective, and that different cultures and different ages have differing ideas of what acts can be quantified as “moral,” but not, as Lewis put it, “so widely as is often claimed.” Two facts are certain: every individual and every culture in every age has very specific ideas of what “ought” or “ought not” to be done, and none of these live up to those same standards.

To borrow (read: steal) an illustration from Timothy Keller, suppose that we are all given a tape recorder at birth. Scratch that: let’s say we are all given a voice-activated digital recorder that is upgraded to an implant after a few decades. This recorder tapes everything we say relating to what other people should or should not do, whether it affects us directly or anyone or anything else that we have an opinion on. At the end of our life, we are judged based only on what we ourselves have deemed to be right and wrong, as recorded throughout our lives. There is not one of us who would be found to have lived up to even our own standards of morality, to say nothing of universally-held beliefs. We have allowed a completely relative morality to be applied individually, and yet we all fall short of our own standard.

A further argument against a relative moral law is even more logically defended. If all morality is relative, then what right do we have (if I can ask that without begging the question) to question any other morality that exists? We do, in fact, judge particular moralities as more or less true and valid than others, and anyone who argues that we do not is doing so only to be contrarian, while ignoring all evidence to the contrary. When we judge a couple’s karaoke rendition of Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock’s “Picture” (after we stop gagging, of course), we judge it by its merits as compared to the original version, or possibly even some better version performed by someone else we’ve heard. When someone quotes entire passages from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (not me – really), the first mistake they make throws off the whole performance. In both of these cases, we have a standard by which we judge the fulfilled representation. The same is true of morality: if we are to judge a particular group’s morality as better or worse than another, we can only do so as we compare to some absolute morality of which we are all aware. If all morality is relative, then we cannot logically claim that our postmodern Western views of morality are any better than Nazi morality, or even that of the mentally disturbed serial killer. And yet, we do find fault in particular moralities, even some of those subscribed to by members of our very own groups.

Can we just pretend they're singing "Endless Love"?

The naturalistic response to this is that morality is culturally defined, and a learned response conditioned by our instinct and derived from our parents and society. We are just dancing to the music of an unknowing and uncaring DNA, as Dawkins claims. Unfortunately for this idea, our morality cannot be so casually defined. Lewis refutes the basis of the idea of an instinctual (naturalistic) basis for morality thusly:

“Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires – one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them.”[3]

If the answer to this is that it is our understanding of the value of human life, or the overall good of society or mankind, that pushes us to follow one instinct over the other, I would ask why the good of others should at any point be more important than our own good, in a world where our life is the only thing we can truly possess. Any claim that supersedes self-preservation and our individual happiness would be merely restating the original question of the source of our Moral Law. All of evolution is supposedly based on the propagation of life, namely, our own. There is no room for unselfishness in that universe.[4] If our morality is an evolved attribute, then we have somehow been chosen (randomly, of course) as the only animal that is shackled to it.

A popular objection to the idea of a divinely inspired Moral Law is the suspect morality displayed in the Bible. I would actually argue that this is more of a proof for verification of the Bible, because the fallibility of the Biblical heroes would be included only if it were true. There could be no other explanation for the repeated weaknesses and failures of all of the major (and minor) figures of the Bible recounted in excruciating detail. For example, polygamy was a universal social convention in the ancient world, practiced by every single culture. And yet, in each life where polygamy is recorded in the Bible, it causes a great deal of difficulty, strife, and ultimately moral and spiritual failure. The Bible obviously does not condone polygamy, even though it records it extensively, as a true historical account would.

It's not really working today, either...

We all have the idea of what we “ought” or “ought not” to do, and it presses on us in every instance. We decry immoral acts – both within and beyond our own cultural boundaries – and proudly claim the morally advanced society we have created, and are continually improving. We promote ridiculous political correctness while we witness the moral decay of our society. And yet, even an argument for or against that statement can only be based on a Moral Law that exists independently of our own mind and genetic makeup. There is a true and absolute standard of morality, and it can only be attributed to a supernatural cause, regardless of how you refer to it.

Finally, we must remember that our current values and beliefs are only solidly entrenched in our own minds. We look at the values and offenses claimed by our grandparents with a mixture of incredulity and amusement. Our grandchildren will look at us the same way. We don’t know which of our closely held beliefs will ultimately be viewed as the most extreme foolishness, and we would be wise to view all of our “knowledge” with appropriate self-awareness. It should be noted, however, that the original morality espoused by Moses and the Patriarchs, and fully developed by Jesus and the Apostles has been steadily and consistently espoused for millennia. The Christian morality found in the New Testament mirrors most closely our own understanding of the Moral Law within us, regardless of whether or not we actually follow our own inclinations. We cannot even follow the rules we set for ourselves.


[1] Richard Dawkins, “Out of Eden.” As quoted in Ravi K. Zacharias, Jesus among Other Gods: the Absolute Claims of the Christian Message. Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 2000. p. 114.

[2] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Collier, 1960. p. 8.

[3] ibid. p. 9-10.

[4] Much of the same argument can be made about the idea of love. If all of our bodies, thoughts, and emotions are due to a random collocation of molecules and electric impulses, then there is no room for the idea of “love.” It is a mere mirage, and yet I know better, and so do you.

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2 Responses to Hear No Evil?

  1. Pingback: Common Complaints and Rebuttals, Part V – “What about those who haven’t heard?” | Another Jesus Fish in the Sea…

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