Which Worldview Best Accounts for Morality?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

There are two major worldview contenders today, at least in western civilization: naturalism and theism.  As morality is central to the human experience, both worldviews owe us an account of where moral values and duties come from.

Bertrand Russell, one of the most famous naturalistic philosophers of the 20th century, described the world through naturalism’s eyes in his book Mysticism and Logic:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Cheerful words, I know.

If Russell is right, then from whence come moral values and obligations? Philosophers David Baggett and Jerry Walls, in their book Good God:The Theistic Foundations of Moralityargue that it is hard to see how moral values and moral obligation can come from mere matter:

The source of this moral obligation isn’t likely to be mere matter. An evolutionary account of feelings of or beliefs in, say, moral obligation is certainly possible, but how would naturalism explain obligation itself? How collections of atoms could generate and issue genuinely binding moral commands is altogether mysterious, if not absurd.

How might a Russellian naturalist make it less absurd?

Contemporary naturalistic ethicist Richard Boyd identifies goodness with a cluster of empirical properties, among them the satisfaction of mutually supportive social human needs. Choices are deemed moral to the extent that they satisfy such needs. Such an account might seem to make morality objective, yet it’s difficult to see how purely empirical properties could really account for binding obligation or intrinsic value.

The attempt to define morality in terms of the satisfaction of our desires tries to replace theism’s objective account of value and meaning with subjective satisfaction, but the exchange leaves us worse off. It remains a leap of blind faith to affirm that anything like objective obligation would emerge from such empirical properties. For that matter, persons themselves, especially persons with intrinsic value and dignity, seem much less likely to emerge from valueless impersonal stuff than from the intentional hand of a personal Creator.

Baggett and Walls then present C. S. Lewis’ reasoning about why a theistic universe better explains moral values and obligations:

A religious conception of reality, in contrast, holds that behind the physical world is something else, likely a mind of some sort. “That is to say,” as Lewis put it, “it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made the universe, partly for purposes we do not know, but partly, at any rate, in order to produce creatures like itself . . . to the extent of having minds.”

. . . The Catholic thinker John Henry Newman, a century before Lewis, had similarly argued that our conscience, particularly our feelings of guilt, lead us to conclude God exists. Feelings of conscience are often directed toward fellow human beings, but sometimes our feelings of guilt or shame, which we take as evidence to suggest that we have offended someone, lack an appropriate human target. If such feelings are appropriate, they must then have a nonhuman one. Our feelings of responsibility, shame, and fear emanating from our conscience imply that “there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear.”

In a similar vein, Lewis’s essential argument can be summarized like this: There are objective moral facts, among them guilt for wrongdoing and duties we are obliged to obey and are responsible for neglecting, and such objective facts are better explained by a religious understanding of reality than by a Russellian world.

The argumentation is not complex, but it is nonetheless compelling. Compare Russell’s world to a world where a perfect God exists. Instead of Russell’s world explaining the existence of moral values and obligations, it explains them away. Until naturalists can come up with a source of morality that has greater explanatory power than the theistic God, they will forever fail to win the battle of worldviews.