See also: Is the Moral Argument Unbelievable?
Jewish history records that Alexander Janneus had 800 of his enemies crucified at his palace while forcing them to watch the execution of their wives and children. The King and his concubines dined and cavorted together as they watched the evening’s “entertainment”. The humane response to that story is to be deeply horrified at the King’s actions, and to feel pity for the condemned men and their families. Our reaction should remind us of how central morality is to our understanding of the world. We need some account of good and evil, right and wrong; and theism offers the best explanation.
Is Morality Objective?
What is an objective moral value? First, to be objective, a value claim must either be true or false. Second, the value must be universal. If something is good, it is good everywhere and always. Third, the value cannot be the product of our desires. Bloodshed does not become good because a society decides to worship war; bravery does not become bad because we prefer life and comfort to compassion and sacrifice. Finally, to be objective in the intended sense, the value must also be part of the “furniture of the universe.” Goodness and rightness must be as real as electromagnetism and gravity.
Some atheists deny that there are any objective moral values, arguing that morality is an illusion. We can adequately explain reality through a scientific world-view that only appeals to physical facts. We have no need to appeal to objective norms to explain human behaviour; disciplines like evolutionary biology and psychology are sufficient for predicting and understanding human behaviour. Sociological or evolutionary explanations tell us why we have moral feelings. Morality is explained away as a useful fiction: an illusion forced onto us by our genes to promote co-operation.
Can science explain morality away? Suppose one reason that we put our children’s well-being ahead of our own is because Natural Selection favoured those ancestors who had developed parental love. Does knowing why we feel that obligation mean that we don’t really have that obligation? Can we reasonably set aside our obligations to our children? Not at all. The social sciences could plausibly explain the rise and development of science. That would not mean that our scientific beliefs are false. Biologists explain why our perceptual systems developed. That does not mean that we should doubt our senses.
It’s difficult to see how any scientific explanation of moral feelings would allow us to live as if there are no moral demands on us; it seems impossible to live as if morality is an illusion; Dawkins calls morality a “blessed, precious mistake”, and he believes it. But if morality is a mistake nothing is truly blessed or precious. Suppose our moral feelings are nothing more than an instinct to co-operate with other humans. If something like this is the case, then a mother’s instinct to care for a threatened child is no more “blessed”, “precious” or “good” than an impulse to sneeze. That strikes us as wholly implausible.
In fact, we often have to appeal to moral facts to explain the world. It is impossible to understand the writings of Richard Dawkins without appealing to concepts like “moral outrage”. Dawkins and other New Atheists rely heavily on moral intuitions to motivate reader and to challenge the injustices of organised religion. It would be practically impossible to fully understand New Atheism in terms of neurons and cognitive functions. We are regularly forced to use moral concepts like “malicious”, “compassionate”, “courageous” and “selfish” to deepen our understanding of other persons, to predict their behaviour and to recommend courses of action.
God as the Source of Moral Value
Logic does not dictate that the world had to contain objective moral values – and we can easily conceive of possible worlds which do not contain objective moral values. In fact, we’ve just noted that some atheists think that this world does not contain objective moral values. While this view seems unconvincing, it doesn’t seem to be logically incoherent. But the simple fact of the matter is that moral concepts have great explanatory power; furthermore the experience of morality is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which attempts to explain morality away is deeply unconvincing.
So, given that their non-existence was logically possible, why do moral values exist? Given that most atheists believe that the universe is nothing more than a system of physical objects governed by the laws of nature, atheists struggle to provide a good explanation. But atheism must be able to account for moral realities if it is to be a convincing worldview; this is why many atheists accept that there are objective moral values,and attempt to identify these with “natural” states of affairs (as opposed to identifying morality with a “supernatural” state like the character of God.)
So the “good” might be identified with whatever benefits our species, or our society. If most people live by the rules of morality then most people will benefit. But these accounts do not seem to capture what is important about morality. Suppose we discovered an intelligent, alien race, very much like our own. Imagine that this species has survived through cannibalism and other cruel practices. Further suppose that the stability of their society was founded on public displays of infanticide and ritualised torture. Finally, imagine that this race argued that “the good” was whatever promoted their survival. 
Even if it could be demonstrated that these practices satisfied the majority of the desires held by members of that race, and even if it was demonstrated that their murderous and cruel activities allowed them to thrive in their environment, we would not say that their practices were “good”. The universe would be a better place without such a species in it. This is not merely an abstract thought experiment. Humans do not merely desire compassion and love; if history teaches us anything, it is that we often prefer progress, war, sated lust and gluttony to helping our fellows. Hitler’s vision of the “good life” glorified war, hatred and ruthlessness. “Moral” visions that promote greed, naked power or cruel oppression remain deeply wicked no matter what material benefits they bring.
When we say that we abstain from child torture because it is cruel, we do not merely mean that it is bad for society; we certainly do not mean that we spare children from suffering out of enlightened self-interest. We mean that even if the torture of a child was beneficial for our family, our society, or even our species we should not engage in it. But, then, couldn’t we shift our ground slightly and simply define the “bad” as “that which causes the greatest amount of human suffering” and the “good” as “that which causes the greatest amount of human pleasure”?
One immediate difficulty is that this conception of the good puts the dignity and rights of the individual person at risk: what if the suffering or elimination of a minority could bring about a utopian existence for the majority? That’s not a persuasive moral vision.Furthermore, this utilitarian conception of “the good” struggles to provide any moral guidance whatsoever. It is impossible to give “the greatest amount of pleasure” any meaningful content, because there is no way to measure and compare the relative worth of a bewildering variety of human experiences. How do we measure and compare the pleasures of walking on the beach to enjoying a cup of coffee? Is it better to enjoy Mozart or Picasso? Dickens or a sunset? Music or ice cream? Bravery or compassion?
There is no standard unit that we can use to give each experience a specific value; so we cannot use “pleasure” to establish the nature of the greatest good or even to recommend one course of action over another. But, instead of measuring pleasure, we could number the satisfied preferences of rational agents. So, the more rational agents who have their goals satisfied, the better the world is. But there clearly are intelligent, thoughtful agents who do not desire the good. Why should we prefer altruism to selfish capitalism? Why should the desires of a moral saint be preferred to an amoral politician? It is absurd to put egoism on a par with sacrificial love; but it is question begging to assume that the latter is more rational than the former. So we need a deeper account of objective moral values.
Can’t the atheist posit a Platonic realm of moral facts? Couldn’t moral values just exist, independently, as abstract facts or necessary truths? But how did we acquire knowledge of these moral truths? Natural selection might favour cognitive systems that give us an accurate picture of the physical world around us: accurate information about the natural world helps us to avoid dangerous falls and predators. But what possible reproductive advantage could knowledge of abstract moral truths bring? Isn’t it more likely that natural selection, and inevitably flawed cognitive systems, would lead us into moral error? If theism is true we have been designed to have moral knowledge. If atheism is true we should be sceptical of all our moral beliefs.
Perhaps atheists could say that moral truths are what a hypothetical ideal observer, who is well-motivated, and who has all the relevant facts, would desire for each of us. So we simply imagine what this observer would want, and that gets us a definition of the good. But, once more, why should we trust our moral imaginations if we were not designed? And how can the imagined desires of a hypothetical observer have any authority? If we don’t live in a moral universe, how do we know that virtues like courage and compassion, justice and mercy, won’t always be in conflict? That is, why should we assume that an ideal observer could ever reach a conclusion about the best course of action if our universe was not designed with morality in mind? Won’t there be a continual clash of incommensurable goods? (And, in any casy, doesn’t this hypothetical observer sound a lot like, well, God?)
Theists have a deeper, more persuasive account of “the good.” God would be a transcendent source of moral value: the very source we need to make sense of ethics. God is a transcendent source of value. Whatever God desires is what is good; whatever God wants us to do is right. Whatever such a God desired should be desired by every rational being. Every rational being should do what such a creator wanted us to do. But doesn’t this raise the dreaded Euthyphro dilemma? (Plato first advanced the dilemma in writing, asking if something becomes holy because the gods love it, or if the gods only love what is holy.)T
The sceptical Iron Chariots website sums up Euthyphro’s challenge to the moral argument like this:
I. Is something good because God commands it so or does God command it so because it is good?
II. If something is good because the God commands that it is so, then what is morally reprehensible to us can be good.
III. If God commands that it is good because it is good, then the good is greater than God.
IV. So, either the good is arbitrary or good is greater than God.
The dilemma does not pose any great challenge for theism or the moral argument. Morality depends on more than God’s commands and God’s commands are not arbitrary if he is a rational creator. In the Christian worldview, God grounds morality. He does not invent right and wrong; he does not lay down moral rules as we might arbitrarily lay down the rules of a new game. Furthermore, the moral argument is not that God is the only source of every important fact about morality. The moral value of the individual is not contrived by God; it flows logically from the facts about who he is and the universe he has created.
As a matter of brute fact, as the rational creator and sustainer of the universe God is the most important and valuable thing in existence. If everything else depends on God for its existence then the value that God has for everything else cannot be surpassed. God is supremely rational, and his power cannot be limited by the irrational and chaotic effects of evil. The earth and the opinions of human beings will pass away into the void. God’s values are eternal. His judgements can be trusted, and his worth is inestimable. Whatever God desires is what is good; whatever God wants us to do is right. Whatever such a God desired should be desired by every rational being. Every rational being should do what such a creator wanted us to do. Therefore God is the supreme good.
Why is it impossible for God to be evil? In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty the distinguished psychologist Roy F. Baumeister outlines both the human conception of pure evil and evil as it appears in atrocities, crime and everyday life. Evil actions stem from poor self-control and an irrational short sightedness. Evil tends to be short sighted and irrationally self-destructive. There is more to evil than inflicting harm (after all, doctors can remove an infected limb): evil is insatiable, irrational and chaotic. An evil person will act impulsively to impose their will on the world. This can bring short term gains, but it is a foolish life strategy, because the risks are so high. If one believes that we should eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die then it makes sense to live fast and leave a good looking corpse. If one believes that human lives and actions are of eternal consequence, a wiser course of action should be commended.
God could not be evil and cannot command us to be evil. Christians believe that a God of limitless, loving power created the universe: there are no limits on his rationality. Ultimately, evil is irrational and destructive. God is rational and creative – the opposite of evil. If there is a God, it is impossible for him to be irrational and capricious. Nor could God commend an evil lifestyle, for such a lifestyle is foolish and God has unlimited wisdom. It’s not that God “created” or “invented” good and evil. Rather, God is so wise and valuable that God’s will is identical with the good; whatever perverts or undoes God’s will is evil.
In other words, good and evil, right and wrong, depend on who God is and what he has decided to create. On theism they do not depend on arbitrary and non-rational decisions for God is the ultimate rationality and wisdom. The answer to Euthyprho is that God is the way, the truth and the life.
Theism Explains the Value of the Human Individual
Theism also explains why each individual person is of immense, objective value. Why does the dignity of the person “trump” the long term interests of society? Theists have a neat answer: we have immense significance because the creator of the Cosmos values us, made us to be like him, and can enter into a relationship with us. We have a great value because we are significant to God. If atheism is true we are unplanned and insignificant on a cosmic scale. If atheism is true the only value that we have is the value that we choose to give to ourselves. And what the human race gives, the human race can take away.
Theism Explains why the Moral Life is a Rational Life
Theism also explains why the moral life is a rational life; being moral is never a waste of effort. Morality often demands that we make sacrifices, but quite often these sacrifices are in vain. Morality comes at a “this-worldly” cost. We must uphold the moral law when everyone around us profits from corruption and cheating. How can such practices be rational? If the material world is the only world then a moral life would be needlessly self-destructive for many individuals.
Morality seems to be even less rational when we realise that many of our moral projects are little more than noble failures. We invest emotional energy trying to turn a wayward youth back on to the right track knowing that we will probably fail. We try to bring relief to the poor, but we are thwarted by the vagaries of power politics. Perhaps all that we are doing is draining valuable resources away from the (rational) goals of economic and technological progress. The extreme effort needed to cultivate moral virtues like compassion and fidelity might be useless; and our moral actions might be counterproductive.
If theism is true then we live in a moral universe. The moral life is not a long term exercise in self-harm because God is the guarantor of our trust in the value of goodness and virtue. God can meet our deepest desire for goodness, justice, forgiveness and love through eternal fellowship with him; conforming to God’s desires for us is not only good, but very much in our own interest. Furthermore, if there is a God, none of our moral projects are in vain. God created us to be good; when we are good we are fulfilling one of our purposes. We literally increase the number of valuable states in the universe when we are moral, because God values morality. If there is a God then, in the long run, there are no noble failures.
God’s Commands and Moral Obligations
Theism does not simply explain why persons have great intrinsic value and why the moral life is a rational life. It also explains why we have obligations to other persons and to ourselves; why we are to pursue the good of every individual. We must fulfil our potential as best we can by developing virtues like friendship, compassion and courage. But often we do not want to develop these virtues; after all, this takes effort. And pursuing liberty and justice for all requires sacrifice and service. Honouring the moral values might be rational, but there are other values. We can also rationally pursue art, business, honour or knowledge.
Morality is meant to “trump” all these other pursuits. If Gaugin has a choice between pursuing his art and caring for his family, his moral duty is to his family. If our business interests or political ambitions incline us to support a violent regime in a foreign land, we had better put those interests aside. We are to adhere to moral principles even when we could violate them without cost; we are also to obey the demands of morality even when there are terrible material costs. Morality is meant to “override” other considerations; it does not make suggestions, but imposes obligations.
Theism offers a neat explanation of moral obligation. Duties and obligations are always to someone, rather than to an impersonal principle; on theism, our obligations are to God. God would be the ideal observer. He would know all the long and short term consequences to our actions. He would not only be impartial; having unlimited love, God would earnestly desire the best for us. As creator God has the power to merit our respect; and as creator God has “property rights” over his entire creation. God has the knowledge, the character and the power to be the perfect moral authority. This explains why obligations exist and are binding; God’s instructions to human beings become our duties.
We must re-iterate, the moral argument does not insist that the atheist is committed to moral nihilism. It does not assume that a person needs access to a special revelation from God, or any religious community to have knowledge of the moral norms established by God. Conscience and nature are effective witnesses; a rich natural law tradition, beginning with the Apostle Paul, insists that the knowledge of God’s law is universally available. The moral argument does not conclude that atheism will lead to morally chaotic or totalitarian societies; nor does it reason that atheists cannot be morally good. The argument is that theism provides the best explanation for morality .
David Baggett and Jerry Walls Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford:2011)
J Budzisewski The Line Through the Heart (ISI Books:2009)
J Budzisewski What We Can’t Not Know (Ignatius:2011)
CS Evans God and Moral Obligation (Oxford University Press: 2013)
John Hare Why Bother Being Good? The Place of God in the Moral Life (IVP:2002)
John Hare God and Morality (Blackwell:2006)
Richard Joyce “Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma” The Journal of Religious Ethics Vol. 30, Issue 1, p. 49-75
Mark Linville “The Moral Argument” (Craig and Moreland ed.) Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell 2009),
George Mavrodes “Religion and the Queerness of Morality” in (Louis P Pojman ed.) Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (Wadsworth: 2001)
William Wainwright Religion and Morality (Ashgate:2005)
Linda Zagzebski “Morality and Religion” in (Quinn ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (Oxford:2007)
 Dawkins’ position on moral objectivity isn’t clear; he often writes like a moral anti-realist, but on other occasions he implies that moral values can be identified with natural properties.
 Some philosophers reason that moral values are objective, but that they “supervene” or “emerge from” certain physical states of affairs. This merely leads us to ask why and how value and obligations emerge from impersonal forces or particles. We do not explain a fact merely by labelling it emergent.
. Something like Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the Orcs in the “Lord of the Rings” films; or one of the ancient insidious creatures which ooze their way out of the twisted imaginations of modern horror novels. I have a particular loathing of this genre; but it is interesting that horror is only effective because it upsets our moral expectations. This tells us something about the meaning of morality. Lovecraft’s cruel and malevolent gods disturb us because we believe that any universe which contained such creature would be an evil place. Even if such an irrational and destructive species thrived, even if such creatures enjoyed their existence, we would believe that the universe would be a better place without them.
 For those who are interested in such things, this also explains why the good is necessary. God exists and has his nature in every possible world. Therefore, God’s desires would be the same in every possible world. There is no possible world in which such a God would desire his creatures rape and murder children. However, those who believe that humans invent right and wrong, or who believe that morality is a blessed, precious mistake, must concede that there are possible worlds in which the human race turned out differently, and in which rape and murder are right and good!
 The theistic doctrine of creation also explains why animal life and our environment have value.
 Perhaps the atheist’s best response to the moral argument would be to argue that we do not seem to live in a moral universe; or to argue that theistic religious traditions are associated with abhorrent moral commands (for example the slaughter of the Canaanites). Both these issues are discussed elsewhere on the site.