In an interesting post at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath offers his thoughts on a recent debate between a moral relativist and a moral absolutist. In particular, he raises several objections to the common Christian attempt to ground moral absolutes in the existence of God. First, he mentions the Euthyphro Dilemma, a very old argument which can be boiled down to the following conundrum: If right and wrong depend on God’s choice, then they seem to be arbitrary (and thus not absolute), whereas if they do not depend on God’s choice, then God’s existence does not seem to be necessary to morality. James notes that a frequent rebuttal is that moral absolutes correspond to God’s character, and responds:
That doesn't seem to me to solve the problem. In fact, it seems to create a problem akin to the "fine tuning" of the laws of physics: then we have a Creator of our universe whose morality is fine tuned to the cosmic moral absolutes...
I’m not sure this is a valid response. If morality is absolute, then it would be the “cosmic moral absolutes” that were fined tuned according to God’s character, not the other way around. But more fundamentally, I think we need to distinguish between moral “absolutism” and moral “objectivity.” To say that morality is “absolute” seems to mean that certain actions (like killing babies) are always wrong, no matter what the circumstances. But to say that morality is “objective” means only that for any given circumstance, there is always a right choice.
I think it is much more helpful to think of morality as objective than to think of it as absolute. In that case, God’s character can serve as the ultimate standard for right and wrong, not because it is “fine-tuned” to an ideal set of absolute moral principles (which could then be affirmed without God), but because what is right is determined by what choice God himself would make if he were in this situation. This assumes that moral truths are not primarily “facts” which “exist” in the usual sense, but rather inherent attributes of certain choices. In that case, no fine-tuning is necessary (of God or the cosmos) for morality to be objective, all that matters is that a correct choice is possible in each case.
The value of such an approach can be seen by considering James’ second objection, which draws on a scene from the old TV show M*A*S*H. In the series finale of that show, a woman is described who smothered her child to save the lives of a bus full of people. Since “killing babies is wrong” would seem to be about as uncontroversial a moral “absolute” as you could imagine, yet it is unclear that the woman’s action would be wrong in this case, the notion of moral absolutism seems rather problematic. Indeed, even if one responds that the woman was wrong to kill her child, would that not make Abraham’s intent to sacrifice Isaac (in Genesis 22) all the more immoral? Yet that case was commanded by God, according to the Bible.
Here I fully agree with James, but must insist that while such examples make the concept of moral absolutes difficult, they actually strengthen the viability of moral objectivity. For if there is any sense in which the woman can be said to have made the right or the wrong choice – even if different circumstances would certainly result in a different answer – then morality is objective, though it is not absolute. And if this is true of difficult cases like that, how much more of less contestable cases? If it can ever be said that “killing this baby would be evil,” then morality is objective, and it is worth asking how this can be so. If the world (including every baby) is the creation of God, then the character of that God does provide a sound basis for such a view.
The difficulty that remains is in determining what choice the character of God would demand in each circumstance. For James is right that we do not have unmediated access to God’s character, nor any consistent picture of it, even in the Bible. Indeed, it is ironic how often Christians seeking to defend absolute morality are forced to defend a form of relativism in dealing with the seemingly immoral divine commands in the Old Testament. This is a serious challenge and I’ve yet to see a truly satisfying answer to it, but again, it is a greater problem for moral absolutism than for moral objectivism. If the situation today is very different than that in which God was commanding, then his character and choices might be consistent, even if his commands vary with the circumstance. More fundamentally, the Bible itself need not be a perfect reflection of God’s will for God to have a perfect will.
For ultimately, the claim that morality is objective must not be seen as the end of the debate on the nature of morality, but rather its beginning: Only if we assume that there is a right answer, can we even discuss what that answer might be.