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Clarifying Arguments for God, Part Three: Moral

Getting from observable natural law to obligatory moral law requires a law maker

In the first two articles of this three-part series, we clarified certain aspects of arguments for God’s existence based on cosmology and design. In this final installment, we will address issues concerning two moral arguments for the existence of God.

Moral arguments, when employed to support the case for the existence of God, generally proceed from conscience or from laws of action back to their ultimate cause. This is where we often run into questions and claims about natural law and how such law can be known at the level of conscience by any rational person, regardless of his faith.

Two important things to note right away are, first, that natural law and conscience are not the same thing, and second, natural law does not simply point to, as many claim, what we see occur in the created world. Confusions between these kinds of related ideas can ruin otherwise good arguments based on them.

Natural law refers to the order of creation and how beings flourish according to their ontological nature (i.e., what they are). Conscience, on the other hand, refers to one’s inner motivation to act according to moral laws (to do good and avoid doing evil). These two often overlap as to their content, but they are not the same thing. For one thing, while natural law points to a being’s purpose and, consequently, what is good for it, the fact that something is good for that being does not necessarily imply any moral obligation (i.e., just because something is good to do, that does not mean I must do it). Conversely, one’s conscience motivates one to follow its dictates even when he does not understand why, exactly. Another difference is that natural law is based in ontology and is discoverable in philosophy, whereas conscience can be formed (or distorted) more easily by subjective means.

The popular Christian apologetics website CARM provides a good example of the confusion in its article on natural law:

Natural law has different meanings. It can mean those laws which are naturally derived from observing nature and are, therefore, obligatory to all mankind. In philosophy, it can mean those moral laws which are naturally inherent in being human and are thus knowable.

Note that while the second meaning corresponds to a certain degree with the traditional definition, “observing nature” as it is used in the first case here is said to morally oblige humans in some way. Yet “nature” here is referring to observations from the created world – not to what a thing is (ontologically). Indeed, creation actually provides numerous examples of how humans are not to act (this is one reason why we call people who act in radically immoral ways “beasts” or “animals”). Even if “nature” were to be taken in the ontological sense here, knowing a thing’s good does not automatically entail moral obligation to do that good. A moral lawgiver is required to elevate “natural law” to moral law (moral obligation), hence the argument for God, the creator and lawgiver, that arises from the reality of moral obligation, which, in turn, arises from the nature of things.

The moral law argument for God from conscience is often said to be based on Romans 2:14-15:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.

In this passage, St. Paul shows that God’s laws are not limited to His supernatural revelation; rather, mankind can come to know moral precepts by following their (properly formed) internal conscience.

It was this argument that was famously used by C. S. Lewis in the first pages of his book Mere Christianity. It usually goes something like this:

  1. All people recognize that some things are right and some things are wrong, which implies a universal standard or “law.”
  2. Standards and laws require a lawgiver to ground them.
  3. This universal law requires a universal lawgiver (God).

The key here is that moral intuition, or a sense of right and wrong, seems to be built into humans, regardless of the society in which they live and were raised. The point is obviously not that no one disagrees or fails to do the good, but that when this occurs, a society tends to recognize it and penalize it accordingly. This universal conscience seems to imply a universal moral law that serves as the standard for all people. Being “above” all people, the cause of this moral intuition must transcend mere humanity, for humans all seem to be aware of and captive to this standard. A transcendent law implies a transcendent lawgiver.

Now, it is one thing to ground universal moral laws in God—it is another to explain how we come to know that law. At this point, understandably, many people confuse the moral law argument from conscience with the natural law argument from goodness.

Natural law arguments proceed from the nature of things (what they are) to moral laws (what they should do) based on those natures. Thus, it is more of a mechanism for discovering goodness than arguing that it must be pursued.

  1. All beings have particular natures, including their purposes, and an action is morally good if it contributes to the being’s achievement of its purpose.
  2. Moral acts track with a thing’s achieving of its purpose, but must be given their status as moral laws by the creator of those things.
  3. Natural laws become obligatory moral laws through the creator (God).

Natural laws are derived from observations and experience of things in the world around us. By knowing what something is we can know its purpose and objectively determine what is good or bad for it. This part works whether or not natural laws are expanded upon—or explicated by—some deity. That is why the natural law is not necessarily the same thing as the moral law “written on the heart” by God (nor part of Divine Command Theory, nor equivalent to God’s group-specific covenant laws). A space alien could observe humanity and discover natural human moral principles without knowing any specific human moral code (which is often violated anyway).

Getting from observable natural law to obligatory moral law is a move that requires a law maker. The conscience, on the other hand, seems to operate without this kind of philosophical investigation, and is thus more properly considered the law “written on the heart.” While both of these laws ultimately require God, they are not the same things.

Apologetic arguments suffer when they are misstated – often making them seem to lack the support or strength they actually have. In this series we’ve offered some nuanced distinctions that may be missed in popular restatements of classic arguments from the cosmos’s existence, its design, and the moral law. Getting these right is important, because their perceived failure could be the excuse someone needs to abandon their conclusion: the existence of the God of Christianity.

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