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Equality, Human Value, and the Image of God

 by Paul Rezkalla

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

These timeless words penned by the Founding Fathers declare a simple, yet profound moral maxim: All humans are equally valuable and ought to be treated as such. This has come to be known as the Principle of Equality (or Equal Treatment).

Almost all societies throughout history have accepted this truth and lived by it. Jeremy Bentham pointed out that any ethical system must begin with the presupposition that “Each to count for one and none for more than one.” We share a strong intuition that all human persons ought to be treated equally, prima facie. Interestingly enough, the pro-slavery South accepted and lived by the Principle of Equality. Even modern-day racists might accept the Principle of Equality as the most basic moral maxim.[1] A racist, however, will seek to redefine the term “human” or “person” to exclude a group of people that he deems unworthy of rights or value. Hence, the racist can happily affirm that all people are equal and ought to be treated equally, and yet disagree on who to include in the category of “people.”

Most rational people today will recognize that racism is wrong—it is evil. However, the problem arises when we seek to ground the Principle of Equality. Why is it that all people are equal? Why is it that all people are born with unalienable rights? Why is it that all people are inherently valuable as ends in and of themselves? In other words, what makes the Principle of Equality really true rather than merely a clever and effective tool to keep society in check?

As it turns out, answering this question is not as easy as it might seem. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who helped draft the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, said, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”[2] Our task is to figure out some common property or set of properties that all human beings share that can bear the weight of substantiating the intrinsic value of the human person. Some potential candidates for grounding human worth and equality might be rationality, intellect, or our capacity for moral reflection and deliberation. Peter Singer argues that all three of these fail. With regard to rationality and intellect, “we can have no absolute guarantee that these abilities and capacities really are evenly distributed evenly, without regard to race or sex, among human beings.”[3] In other words, it’s implausible that all humans have the same intellectual capacity; many people are born with severe mental handicaps. Does their diminished ability to function make them less human? Of course not. Does their inability make them less valuable? Of course not. Singer goes on to say, “it is quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of facts.”[4] The facts of human intellectual ability, moral capacity, strength, and the like cannot serve as the basis for human value for two reasons:

  1. These abilities are not evenly distributed among all people. Some people are strong, some are weak. Some people are bright, others are not.

  2. It is not clear what it is about these properties that makes them the grounds for inherent human worth. There is nothing in the human capacity for rational reflection that explicitly bespeaks the intrinsic worth of every human being and can serve as its ontological grounds.

Singer finally concludes his argument with a profound point and a concession, “There is no compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged equality among human beings: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.”[5] Singer looks at the different attempts to ground human worth and finds them all lacking. He concedes that there is no description of humanity that justifies or substantiates the principle of equality, and yet we still ought to treat humans as if we are all equal. For Singer, the Principle of Equality has no basis in reality, but it is a useful fiction and we should still aim to live by it.

Singer’s candid concession is honest and laudable, for on his naturalistic position, there is no such property or set of properties that seems likely to bear the weight of Singer’s challenge. What could serve as the foundation for intrinsic human value? It is at this point that the theist has the advantage. The theist can take any number of viable approaches in answering this question.

The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos.
The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos. Every person from the weakest to the strongest—from the least-known to the best-known—has this property. We carry the Image of God. The theist can also ground human value in God’s intentions for humanity. God has created human beings with certain ends in mind so that any disruption of those intentions is a disruption of the way God made humans and intended for us to interact. These two options, moreover, are not mutually exclusive by any means. Theists can happily affirm both of these options in answering Singer’s challenge. God, as both our Source and End, having created us and imbued us with our telos, provides the robust ontological foundation for intrinsic human worth and moral standing. These approaches take the burden off various human capacities; even when human beings suffer handicaps or lack certain faculties, their ontological status has not diminished one iota. On this view, God has created all people as inherently valuable. All people regardless of race, sex, age, ability to function, sexual orientation, or location are ends in and of themselves—priceless, precious, and loved by God.

While the naturalist can see the need for grounding the Principle of Equality, the theist can offer a viable set of solutions. A Principle of Equality that hangs suspended in mid-air is both ineffective and dangerous. A robust understanding of what ties us all together and validates the notion that all humans are intrinsically valuable is vitally important, now more than ever. It would seem that theism offers a fuller account of the descriptive and prescriptive components of the Principle of Equality than does naturalism.

For further reading on this important issue, including a systematic critique of various secular efforts to ground moral standing and intrinsic human worth, see Mark Linville’s “Moral Argument” available online here: https://appearedtoblogly.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/linville-mark-22the-moral-argument22.pdf

 

Notes:

[1]    James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (2015), p. 79-80

[2]    Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951), p. 77

[3]    Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (1975), p. 4

[4]    Singer, p. 4

[5]    Singer, p. 5

 

Image:”Scaffolding & First Amendment Of The Constitution Of The United States Of America, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (Washington, DC)” by takomabibelot. CC License. 

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Four Problems with Naturalistic Evolutionary Ethics

by Paul Rezkalla

 

Gargan, the caveman, lived for only one purpose: producing offspring. His sole purpose in life was to propagate his DNA by any means necessary. Brutality and selfishness are simply the tools of the trade to accomplish the life mission bestowed upon him by natural selection, making Gargan a mean character with no regard for any creatures, human or otherwise, around him.

This caricature of evolutionary morality is becoming increasingly outdated as new methods of observing and studying mammalian behavior shed light on behavioral tendencies. Humans are social mammals, and as such, we depend on each other’s cooperation to survive. Thus, there is a kind of proto-morality that can be observed even among chimps, bonobos, and other primates. Some species of primates understand and live by the laws of reciprocity and fairness, engaging in tit for tat and giving favors in exchange for future favors. Frans deWaal points out that Chimpanzees “build a social economy of favors and disfavors to food to sex and form grooming to support in fights. They seem to maintain balance sheets and develop expectations, perhaps even obligations, hence their negative reaction to broken trust” (The Bonobo and the Atheist, 129). This complex system of interaction is interesting scientifically, but it suffers from some deep problems when applied to conversations about morality and normative ethics.

 

  1. Naturalistic Fallacy

Defining that which is “good” as that which is “natural” commits what G. E. Moore called the naturalistic fallacy: “To argue that a thing is good because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural…is therefore certainly fallacious: and yet such arguments are very frequently used.” “All that the Evolution-Hypothesis tells us is that certain kinds of conduct are more evolved than others” and what this leads to, say some, is the “definite view that better means nothing but more evolved; or even that what is more evolved is therefore better.” Once we collapse “goodness” into “naturalness,” we have no standard by which to measure the moral status of human behavior. In order for human behavior to be subject to evaluation, “goodness” has to mean something more than merely “that which is natural.” Moore also points out that: “The value of the scientific theory, and it is a theory of great value, just consists in showing what are the causes which produce certain biological effects: whether these effects are good or bad it cannot pretend to judge.” A recent study has demonstrated a link between the genetic mutation that inhibits the production of Monoamine Oxidase A (an enzyme that catalyzes dopamine and seratonine) and both lower levels of empathy and higher levels of aggression. Another study has shown that males with less white matter in their brains are more likely to experience and express pedophilic tendencies. If “goodness” and “naturalness” are synonymous, then it would follow that male aggression and pedophilia are good, but we all agree that this is not the case. We subject human behaviors and tendencies to moral scrutiny by a standard that exists beyond human behaviors and tendencies (we do it no other way!).

  1. Is-Ought Fallacy

The evolutionary sciences only tell us what is the case about evolutionary history, primate behavior, human psychology, etc. They do what science is meant to do: describe the natural order of things. Hence, by virtue of what science is, it merely describes behavior, but it cannot prescribe behavior. As David Hume pointed out, there is an epistemic and normative gap between that which is the case and that which ought to be. Deriving an ought from an is seems difficult, if not impossible. Science, the careful, methodical observation of the world, can only describe human behavior. It cannot prescribe moral behavior. While scientific results and discoveries can offer interesting and even relevant insight into ethical questions, science is not the arbiter of ethics. And as with the naturalistic fallacy, we run the risk of endorsing immoral oughts simply because we observe some immoral behavior that simply is. A recent anthropological survey of human ancestors in the Pleistocene era has suggested that male-on-female rape was exceedingly common. Due to various factors, females began to recognize and implement their role as sex monopolizers, and this in turn led to an increase in rape. This detrimental exchange of behaviors was soon phased out by natural selection, but for some time it was the norm. It still goes without saying that rape, whether then or now, is morally reprehensible regardless of circumstances. If it is true (and it is) that rape is, always has been, and always will be wrong, then we can condemn natural states of affairs that favored rape and concede that we cannot derive an ought from an is.

It is also interesting to note that humans seem unique in that there is a moral dimension to our behavior. Rape among humans is not merely forcible copulation. Forcible copulation takes place regularly in the animal kingdom with ducks, sharks, dolphins, and bedbugs. Bedbugs and other invertebrates actually practice what is known as “traumatic insemination” as the ordinary means by which they copulate. With human beings, forcible copulation is termed “rape” because we recognize that human behavior is saturated with moral status, whether good or bad. Male lions sometimes kill cubs, but they do not murder. Fighter ants use aphids as forced laborers, but they do not practice slavery. Young bottlenose dolphin males have been known to corner a single female and take turns forcibly copulating, but they do not commit rape. Murder, slavery, and rape are immoral acts that are only possible among humans because of the unique ability of human actions to carry moral status.

  1. Arbitrary Moral Values

The values and tendencies that humans hold are contingent upon the specific kind of social mammals that we are. Had the tape of evolutionary history been rewound and played once again, we might have a completely different set of moral values and tendencies –on what Angus Menuge calls “strong evolutionary ethics.” Darwin himself noted this conclusion: “If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.” Michael Ruse also paints a stark picture: “We are what we are because of contingent circumstances, not because we necessarily had to be as we are. Suppose, instead of evolving from savannah-living primates…we had come from cave-dwellers. Our nature and morality might have been very different. Or take the termites…they have to eat each other’s feces…had humans come along a similar trail, our highest ethical imperatives would have been strange indeed.”

  1. Evolutionary Science Undermines Justification for Moral Beliefs

Imagine that when you were a child, a scientist gave you a pill that caused you to believe that George Washington was the first president of the U.S.A. Imagine also that this pill caused you to forget that you ever took such a pill. Finally, imagine that the same scientist finds you again late in life and confesses to you that you were part of this experiment of which you were unaware. He tells you that your belief that George Washington was the first president was solely the product of a pill. If you had never researched the topic for yourself, you would not be justified in continuing to believe that George Washington was the first president, right? The only reason you had that belief was the pill that was given to you. But now that you have knowledge about the pill, you cannot honestly say that you have good grounds for believing that George Washington was the first president.

The same is true of evolutionary science and what it tells us about ethics. We are learning now, more than ever, that human beings are social animals with tendencies built in to us over the course of evolutionary history that allow us to function well together in groups. We have tendencies to take care of our children, our spouses, etc. We have tendencies towards reciprocity, altruism, and empathy. The problem however is that coming to know that these tendencies are inculcated into us by evolutionary processes geared towards maximizing survivability and reproduction actually undercuts our justification for believing that these moral tendencies are true and binding for us. In the same way that once you find out that your George Washington belief is solely the product of a pill, you no longer have good reasons for continuing to believe it to be true, understanding that “morality” is merely a set of evolutionarily-ingrained tendencies also undermines our justification for moral beliefs and actions. “Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends (Ruse and Wilson 1985)” and it “is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes” (Ruse 1986).

 

Photo: “Two apes share a moment” by Indo_girl2010. CC license. 

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5 Common Objections to the Moral Argument

By Paul Rezkalla

 
The Moral Argument for the existence of God has enjoyed a long tradition of defense from theistic philosophers and thinkers throughout the history of Western thought…and a long tradition of misunderstandings and objections from even some of the most brilliant minds. In its abductive form, the moral argument seeks to infer God as the best explanation for the moral facts about the universe. One popular formulation is as follows:

  1. Moral facts are best explained by God’s existence.
  2. Moral facts exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Here are five of the most common objections to the argument and why, in my view, they are not insuperable.

 1. “But I’m a moral person and I don’t believe in God. Are you saying that atheists can’t be moral?”

The moral argument is not about belief in God. Rather, the argument usually deals with grounding and substantiating objective morality. If God does not exist, then objective morality becomes much more difficult to explain. Sure, atheists can be moral. In fact, I know several atheists who are more moral than some theists! Religious leaders in the New Testament were among the biggest detractors and critics of Jesus. The issue of belief is not pertinent. The argument instead highlights the fact that there must be a sufficient basis for there to be objective morality. God, in light of the distinctive features of morality, can be argued to be their best explanation.

2. “But what if you needed to lie in order to save someone’s life? It seems that morality is not absolute as you say it is.”

We need not talk about absolute morality here. There is an important difference between absolute and objective. Absolutism requires that something will or must always be the case. For the record, such moral facts exist—like the inherent badness of torturing children for fun. But nothing so strong is called for here. Objectivity simply means (human) ‘mind-independent’ or ‘judgment-independent’. When I argue for objective morality, I need not argue that it is always the case that lying and killing are wrong; the moral argument I’m sketching does not defend absolute morality. Rather, it contends that there is a standard of morality that transcends human opinions, judgments, biases, and proclivities.

Suppose that some nation today decreed that every one of its brunette citizens would be tortured to death simply for being brunette; it would still be the case that it is wrong to torture brunettes to death simply for being brunette.

The statement, “It is wrong to torture brunettes to death simply for being brunette” is true, regardless of whether or not anyone believes it to be true. This is what is meant by objective.

3. “Where’s your evidence for objective morality? I won’t believe in anything unless I have evidence for it.”

Well, many would suggest that the evidence for objective morality is ubiquitous. If by ‘evidence’ you mean incontrovertible proof beyond any shadow of doubt, such an evidential standard is simply unrealistic and beyond our ken for nearly everything except a few beliefs internal to our own heads. After all, how do you know with absolute certainty that you are not a brain in a vat being electrically stimulated by a crazy scientist who wants you to think that all of this is real? You could be in the matrix, for all you know (take the blue pill)! How do you know with complete assurance that you weren’t created a couple minutes ago and implanted with memories of your entire past life? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

See where this is going? Denying the existence of something on the basis of, “I will not believe unless I have completely sure evidence for it” leaves you with solipsism, at best. We believe in the reality of the external world on the basis of our sense experience of the external world. And we are justified in believing that the external world is real unless we have good evidence to think otherwise. There is no way to prove with utter certainty that the external world is real, or that the past wasn’t created 2 minutes ago and given the appearance of age. Similarly we have no good noncircular evidence for the reliability of testimony or the reliability of induction, and these are just a few examples we could adduce. And yet we all believe that the external world and the past are real. In the absence of defeating evidence, we are justified in trusting our experience of the external world. In the same way, I think it’s plausible to suggest by parity in reasoning that we can know that objective morality exists on the basis of our moral experience. We have access to moral facts about the universe through our moral experience. Unless we have good reason to distrust such experience, we are justified in accepting the reality of the objective moral framework that it presents us with.

Despite how resistant we might be to accepting the truth of moral objectivity, no one really denies that there are some moral facts (except psychopaths and some sociopaths). Take the following scenario: In 1978 a fifteen year old girl was walking to her grandfather’s house when a man offered to give her a ride. She got in the car with him. He then kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly, hacked off her arms at the elbows with an axe, and left her to die. Although she survived, she was terrorized by this traumatic event. Her attacker served only eight years in prison and told her during the trial that one day he would be back to finish the job.

Now answer the following question: Was this act wrong?

If yes, you believe that there is at least one moral fact in the world.

If no, you face a fairly formidable burden of proof. There’s theoretical space for skepticism, but it’s hardly the obvious position to take.

4. “If morality is objective, then why do some cultures practice female genital mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and other atrocities which we deem unacceptable?’

There can be two responses given here:

The first response is that even though not all cultures share the exact same moral facts, most embrace the same, underlying moral values. For example, there are certain tribes that practice senicide (authorized killing of the elderly) due to their belief that everyone in the afterlife will continue living on in the same body that they died with. Thus, in order to ensure that those in the afterlife are capable of hunting, swimming, building houses, etc., the elderly are killed before they become too old to take care of themselves. This act is done with the well-being of the elderly in mind. The moral value that most of us hold would suggest that “the elderly are valuable and must be taken care of,” is also accepted by these tribes, even though their construal of the nonmoral facts diverges from our own.

The second response is that some cultures do, in fact, practice certain things that are straight up morally abominable. Cultures that practice infanticide, female circumcision, widow burning, child prostitution, and the like are practicing acts that are repulsive and morally abhorrent. The fact that we realize the difference in how certain cultures treat their women, children, and elderly and are outraged at immoral practices is evidence that we believe in objective morality. A man’s decision to have his 6-year old daughter circumcised or sold into prostitution is no mere cultural or traditional difference that we should respect, uphold, or praise, or even cultivate an attitude of impartiality toward; rather these are atrocities that need to be advocated against and ended. The existence of multiple moral codes does not negate the existence of objective morality. Are we to condone slavery and segregation simply because they were once allowed under our country’s moral code? Of course not. We condemn those actions, and rightly so.

Take the example of Nazi Germany: the Nazi ideology consented to the slaughter of millions, but their actions were wrong despite their convictions to the contrary. Tim Keller summarizes this point succinctly:

The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

Simply because a society practices acts that are contrary to what is moral does not mean that all moral codes are equal. Moral disagreements do not nullify moral truths, any more than people disagreeing on a mathematical calculation negates an objectively right answer.

5. “But God carried out many atrocities in the Old Testament. He ordered the genocide of the Canaanites.”

For starters, this isn’t really an objection to the moral argument since it does not attack either premise of the argument. It’s of course an interesting issue regarding the moral character of the God of the Bible, and for those interested, this site recently posted a new book by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan; we encourage you to take a look. Beyond that, we can say this: by making a judgment on God’s actions and deeming them immoral, the objector is appealing to a standard of morality that holds true outside of herself and transcends barriers of culture, context, time period, and social norms. By doing this, she affirms the existence of objective morality! But if the skeptic wants to affirm objective morality after throwing God out the window, then there needs to be an alternate explanation for its basis. If not God, then what is it? The burden is now on the skeptic to provide a naturalistic explanation for the objective moral framework—an explanation that explains all that needs to be explained without changing the topic, watering down the categories, or reducing the significance of morality.

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