Sunday, January 10, 2010

Existence of God - the Moral Argument

C.S Lewis "Mere Christianity" is a book worth it's weight in gold. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen says, the way to read a book is simliar to eating. You benefit more from it when after reading, you put it aside and "chew" on it.

I was chewing on Lewis arguments in the book and was struck how it corresponds with reality:

The news channel "Headlines today" was full of debates between Chetan Bhagat, the author of a book and Bollywood movie producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Chetan was claiming that he deserves recognizition for the story, which he is being denied. Apparently, he mentioned this on his blog and the rest took off from there.

There is clearly a moral dilemma here. But one thing to notice is that by the very act of writing about it on his blog, Chetan is appealing to a common morality which we all have. This is the morality which Lewis speaks of in his book. Another common place I can see Lewis argument is:

A person takes your seat in the queue, you protest that you came first.

This and many other instances in daily life indicate that we can argue or appeal based on the understanding that the listener shares a common morality - sense of justice in this example.

Now, it may be argued that this differs from culture to culture. For example, in the West, it may considered modest for women to wear a skirt, but not expose the midriff, but in India, the sari may worn without it being considered immodest.

The answer to this is that standards like modesty and courage cut across borders, even if the codes may be different. There is no culture, as Lewis argues (and Peter Kreeft in his book "Handbook of Christian Apologetics"), which patronizes immodesty or cowardice.

Origin of standards

So far we have seen that there is a common Moral Law, though moral practices differ. But where do these standards come from?

It cannot come from matter, since matter cannot think, cannot hold two ideas side by side and compare them. It needs a mind to weigh and judge one as better than the other.

It cannot come from the individual, since it is something Universal and does not differ from person to person. We are bound by the Moral Law. We know it to be right and try to explain ourselves when questioned.

If someone asked me why I have taken the place in the queue, I'd give an explanation based on some reason because I feel bound to justify myself.

Therefore, this Moral Law cannot come from the individual.

It may be claimed that this comes from society. Well, if that were true, then what is society? A nation, or ethnic / religious group? Whichever kind of group it may refer to, how can the collection of individuals be right about something which the individual cannot? Society cannot be a source of the Moral Law because it is a Universal Law which consists not of codes of conduct, but underlying principles. Behaviour and dress codes differ across societies, but the underlying principles like courage and modesty do not.

The only possible answer is that they come from something higher than us. This something must have a mind to think of conduct. This something with a mind that is greater than us is perfectly compatible with the Christian concept of God. He is a good God, and a law giver. He loves good and despises evil.

There can be another view here. One may claim the common standards of morality come from one's conscience. But where does conscience get its authority? The possible alternative sources of this authority - matter, the individual and society do not satisfy for the same reasons that they do not satisfy as an explanation for the origin of the Moral Law.

Conscience cannot get it's authority from matter because that would require a mind. Without a mind, moral possibilities cannot be weighed and judged.

Neither can the authority of conscience come from the individual. I cannot bind myself with a law I have invented. If I do, I can quite easily release myself.

Society cannot, either, be the source of the authority of conscience, because:

1. Society is just a collection of individuals. Surely number does not make something right.

2. There are rebel reformers who oppose prevalent social evils, what about reformers who oppose the accepted view.

The Good Law-giver greater than us

Peter Kreeft mentions these in his Moral Argument and Argument from Conscience. And he quite rightly points out that this is only a small portion of what Christians believe as God. A Good Law-giver is still a long way off from the Christian God, but it is certainly compatible with Him, while materialistic view of the Universe does not explain either the origin of the Moral Law or the source of the authority of Conscience.

Finally, whether you are a believer looking for wisdom and clarity, or an agnostic or atheist open to the truth, "Mere Christianity" is one book that would figure on my list "books to read before you die". Still, I rate the "Handbook of Christian Apologetics" as a the best book on Apologetics I have read. A true gem, and it gets my ten on ten.


  1. Anonymous9:27 AM

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  3. Dear Anonymous :), thanks for the link: Non-Theistic explanation

    The author of the above article accepts the existence of Lewis Moral Law and attempts to provide an alternative explanation to it.

    To quote the explanation:

    "All the moral actions are similar in that they advance the life of at least one individual human without damaging the lives of any individual humans... So claiming that “X ought to be the case” is tantamount to claiming that “X promotes some individual human life/lives without harming any.” The critic might respond, “Why ought we to favor individual life as opposed to death?” The answer is simple: dead people cannot have preferences.

    It is plain to see why the above argument cannot hold.

    1. There is no rational basis to assert that dead people cannot have preferences. By introducing dead people into the equation, the argument self destructs for the simple reason that it uses an unknown to attempt to explain the Moral Law. What according to the author is death? Agreed, physically dead do not communicate the way physically alive do. But we cannot claim anything about whether or not they have preferences without data about them. On the contrary, there are recorded instances of dead coming back to life. Obviously these individuals have preferences after they resurrected.

    2. The above explanation does not work when death is inevitable no matter what the moral choice made. For example, if you were in Nazi Germany and lied to the SS about where the Jews were, you and your family could have got killed. On the other hand, if you revealed the hiding place, the Jews would have got shot/died in a C camp. The above explanation says nothing when the lives of many are at stake like in this example. It is an oversimplification of the moral dilemma in question.

    As an aside, if one reads the part 3 and 4 of Lewis book, you'll see that he clearly states that this life is a preparation for the life after death. The eternal good is the direction of the Moral Law. So Lewis for one, would clearly not agree with the above argument, which seems to aim at maximizing the present life.

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  5. In my book at I wrote a chapter about morality and conscience, called “Duel of the Dual.” Here is an excerpt:

    “Conscience” is a misused and misunderstood word. “Have you no conscience?,” ask people of a person who does something which seems to them to be so obviously wrong. Each person has a dual conscience and, occasionally, these two sides do engage in a duel.

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned…” Individual moral development is based on both.

    Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Sri Aurobindo said “…true original Conscience in us [is] deeper than constructed and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which points always towards Truth and Right and Beauty, towards Love and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us.” Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not.

  6. Ron Krumpos: My definition of conscience is an inner voice telling us what is right and wrong.

    My (definition of) conscience is clear. (pun intended)

    What is the basis for the theory of dual conscience? The expression "have you no conscience" indicates
    1. the action has not met up to an accepted notion of right and wrong
    2. the existence of a common understanding of right and wrong

  7. Ron Krumpos: To give an example, a soldier has a choice in battle to risk his life and try to fight on or to escape with his life. We uphold the courage of a soldier who fights bravely rather than run away from the battlefield.

    There is clearly a better choice in this situation. Conscience tells us that the choice to fight and defend your fellows is better than the choice to run away from the battlefield. There is a clear right here. The other choice is clearly the lesser good.

    St Paul says "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand." - Romans 7

    I think you are referring to conflicting voices as dual conscience. Now if conscience tells us what is right, it cannot tell us that both choices are right, otherwise, it is only confusing us. The commonly agreed upon understanding of conscience is the voice which tells us the better choice.

  8. Terence,

    The quotation from my e-book references other sources, not just my personal opinions. Here are two later paragraphs, and a footnote, from that same chapter:

    "The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict. Disobey the laws of society and you might be ostracized and/or go to prison. Disobeying divine law is a sin in most Western religions and causes bad karma, i.e. negative consequences, in Eastern faiths. Divine law, or dharma in Sanskrit - logos in Greek - is fundamental within both Hinduism and Buddhism. It has many definitions and applications.*

    The laws of our community, or religion, should be followed only when they do not conflict with divine law. Intuitive, innate and interior conscience tells us, without words, what divine will dictates. Reasoned, learned and exterior conscience tells us, with words, what society or religion expects, or demands, of us. Mystics listen to the divine silent voice. It requires listening beyond the self."

    *Dharma, or logos, can also mean the source of world order, cosmic reason, moral teachings, individual duty, etc. Unlike dharma, logos more commonly refers to human reason, e.g. logic. In
    Christianity, Logos is God’s Word (wisdom) incarnate in Jesus.

    Your later example of a soldier in battle reminded me of a quote from elsewhere is my e-book:

    "In Hinduism’s ancient text, the Bhagavad-gita (Blessed One’s Song), the Lord Krishna tells the despondent warrior Arjuna that he must do his duty. “The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore, perform every action sacramentally and be free of all attachments to results.” You must forget yourself, your entire self, to succeed. “You” is then integrated into the One."

    I looked at your profile. You might be interested in my profile at MIT's Technology Review India: My quote on conscience is also there, but in a somewhat different context.

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  10. Ron Krumpos:

    It's been a while from my schedule. Being off today, I still don't think I can do justice to the vast topic of your book, which seems to focus on integration of mysticism of East and West, so I'll limit myself to the context of the above article, i.e the Moral Law and Conscience:

    I agree that there is a "Divine law", which obviously is above any other law, whether of state or society. For example, just because South Africa upheld apartheid doesn't mean apartheid was right.

    In the above example, I think you'd label the voice that "all humans are equal in dignity" as the "inner conscience" and the voice of apartheid the "exterior conscience". When people say right and wrong come from conscience, they clearly cannot mean your definition of conscience, since there is as you agree only one right choice in the situation when you say:

    "The laws of our community, or religion, should be followed only when they do not conflict with divine law."

    I had a look at your profile and appreciate your interest in this topic and your work and study of religion and mysticism. I'd like to write about this, but am short of time.