In his latest ‘Thought of the Day‘, in which atheist Michael Hawkins offers us his profound wisdom, he makes this statement:
I see no reasoning given as to why good and evil ultimately being subjective also automatically makes them meaningless. The only argument ever put forth is that subjective morality = meaningless. That’s a bad equation.
I am always suspect of someone who ‘sees no reason’ for something, and then goes on to give a reason, however weak a strawman that reason is.
As usual when we parse these sort of statements we have to walk back a bit and ask a few questions – for example, how do we know what evil and good are to begin with? Who gets to say what is evil and good? If evil and good are merely the inclinations of individuals, then why would they be universally considered? What is the relationnship of evil to good?
That last question is the one I think I have always found to be the most misunderstood. Often when we consider the nature of evil, we think of it as having a reality like ‘good’ does – as if there is some list of evil standards which evil adheres to. But in fact this is not the Christian view of evil; it is not the polar opposite of good, but instead the absence of good. In this sense we can compare it to darkness – darkness isn’t a thing in and of itself, but the absence of light.
In the same way, for a Christian, ‘good’ is not merely a set of standards or rules, but proceeds from the nature of God Himself – in other words what is good are actions which are consistent with what God is. This is why the origination of why it is wrong to kill innocents doesn’t come from the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’, but farther back, where Noah is told murder is a capital crime because man is made “in the image of God.” That is, murder is an assault on the image of God Himself – which is a contrasted with the death of any other living creature. It is an assault on the good.
Understanding evil this way also explains why Jesus was able to sum up the law into two statements – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”, and “You shall love you neighbor as yourself“. All acts of evil are contrary to these two imperatives, because they are absent the love we are to have for God and in every person who incorporates His image.
So the objectivity of evil is a given if we agree that good can exist as an objective standard of behavior. Of course that brings us back to Michael’s argument – that subjective good can have meaning. I would say that obviously it can have meaning to an individual – but I don’t think that matters once you have more than one person in the conversation, i.e. that subjective view of good has no bearing on those who don’t share it. So it has little value (or meaning) beyond informing the actions of the individual who holds to that view of what is ‘good’. So the statement then becomes, subjective morality only has meaning for those who hold that particular standard of morality. That isn’t an argument against subjective morality per se, but it with the following example we can show why subjective morality fails to be generally meaningful.
We can see this by considering a particular idea of ‘good’ held by a particular group, for example that of the Nazi’s. In their purview, it is ‘good to eliminate undesirable persons’. If moral views are subjective, then obviously this view has meaning for the Nazi’s – the problem of course comes for those who hold an alternate view, say, “it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent persons”, which if morality is subjective, would also have meaning only for those who adhere to it.
What then of the inevitable clash that occurs between these two views? The minute we assert one over the other, we assert the objective rightness of that view – and so undermine the notion of a subjective morality. Of course in asserting an objective rightness of a particular view, we revert to the earlier questions I asked in this post – how do we know our view of morality is the objectively right one? Why do I get to say what is right (as opposed to the Nazi’s)? etc.
And of course the Christian has response to this – because what is good is embodied in the nature and existence of a real eternal Creator, who has articulated that good to us in the form that provides a basis for it. One may not agree with that statement, but it provides a rational foundation for asserting the existence objective good – the naturalist has no such basis to offer, other than personal preference, and so the subjective good he claims, while it may have meaning for him, does not allow us to formulate generalized standards of good.
It is in this sense that the idea of subjective good (and evil) fails.