The socio-political climate of our time has pushed the subject of morality to the forefront. Differing worldviews in our vastly changing society have people asking not just where is God, but why does he allow certain things to happen? Many people are wondering how to define moral right and wrong in an age where relativism and subjectivity areencouraged. In this interview, The Jude 3 Project aims to shed light on the various issues facing morality in our world today.
The interviewee is Dr. David Baggett, the founder and Executive Editor of MoralApologetics.com. He teaches philosophy and apologetics in the Divinity School at Liberty University. He’s the author of several books, including, with Jerry Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality(2011) and God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (2016), both with Oxford University Press. Good God won Christianity Today’s 2012 Best Book in Apologetics/Evangelism.
Welcome Dr. David Baggett, it is an honor to have you with us!
Cameron Hodge:Today it seems that all moral barriers are being torn down in the social sphere. In fact, it seems that political correctness, tolerance, and the desire to “love everyone” have directly ostracized, and in many ways, attacked Biblical morality. In the book that you coauthored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality, you begin by explaining C.S Lewis’s fundamental argument that there is an objective moral law binding our actions. Many argue this is direct evidence of God because you cannot have a moral law without a giver of moral law. What is your answer to those in society that believe morality can be found without use of the Bible and the “Christian way” of doing things, or without God?
Dr. Baggett:I try to push the discussion to the question of moral foundations, and tend to use an abductive moral argument, which is another name for an “inference to the best explanation,” a simple idea really. It’s the notion that the best explanation of various moral facts is God himself. I don’t usually begin with language like “this is the only way it can be,” which tends to be needlessly off-putting. Those resistant to the argument naturally attempt to ground morality in something else, assuming they haven’t given up on the idea altogether, which is still a rarity, fortunately. They have various resources to appeal to in their efforts to ground a secular ethics, from the need for social harmony to the satisfactions of morality to an evolutionary account to a social contract, and the list goes on. We don’t try to reject all such efforts with one argument; usually it’s more productive to have a conversation in which we look carefully at their proposal to assess its strengths and weaknesses.
As part of that discussion, I encourage folks to look seriously into the features of morality—inalienable human rights, authoritative moral obligations, intrinsic human dignity, objective values, moral guilt, meaningful free will, moral knowledge, and prospects for forgiveness, real moral transformation, and happiness and virtue going hand in hand. Then I ask what can really best explain these realities. I think theism and Christianity can explain them considerably better than, say, secular approaches to ethics. Several secular answers have insight, but a theistic account has all that insight and considerably more. Usually what I point out about the features of morality in need of explanation are its features that anyone—believer and unbeliever alike—can intuitively recognize, since I don’t want to presuppose their commitment to scripture at the beginning of the conversation. The discussion can be helpful in pointing out the way moral truth is a radical and fascinating thing that really does need a robust explanation.
Cameron Hodge: Thank you for your response. You brought up an interesting point that I would like to explore. You mentioned one of the features of morality is “inalienable human rights.” In light of the recent controversies regarding the rights of others i.e.the LGBT community, released convicts, racial discrimination, police brutality, etc., how should society define inalienable human rights, and where does this definition come from? If your view is based on a Biblical worldview, should those who do not hold a Biblical worldview be obligated to follow that definition of inalienable human rights?
Dr. Baggett: I rather doubt it’s the definition of such rights that’s controversial. Basic human rights are things which most can agree how to define. Whether there are such things as basic human rights, and corresponding duties to uphold such rights, is the more controversial and vexed question. The Kantian notion that people shouldn’t be treated merely as means to ends, but are infinitely valuable ends in themselves, is a beautiful, powerful idea; and the simple fact is that not every worldview is equally good at accounting for such an idea of human beings as inherent possessors of dignity and bearers of basic human rights. Mark Linville has done terrific work on this subject, arguing that various secular normative ethical theories don’t have the resources to make sense of such ideas as well as classical theism can. Paul Copan has added an historical and societal element to moral apologetics by documenting ways in which the Judeo-Christian tradition has, in society after society, contributed to moral progress—women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery, battles against injustice, fair treatment of the marginalized. Jürgen Habermas, an atheist, has come around to admitting the powerful role that Christianity has historically played in upholding human rights around the world.
Again, the issue isn’t what the definition of an inalienable right is; that’s easy. The question is where they come from, how they’re best analyzed, what their ultimate foundations are. We have excellent reason to think our Founders were right: we were conferred them by our Creator. The issue of concern to me as a philosopher and moral apologist is what best explains the existence of such rights, and as a Christian what their existence normatively entails about our treatment of others. My focus here is on inalienable basic human rights, not alleged rights far less obvious and universal. Some such rights may well exist, or should, morally or legally, but they’re not in the category most of concern to my argument here. We live in a time when lots of claims to special rights are asserted; the atmosphere remains of rights talk grounded in something transcendent; but the foundations of our rights claims nowadays have often become irremediably degraded in light of the rejection of their ontological foundations. The result is that rights discourse today too often smacks of conflicts between adversarial political power structures, rather than being grounded in our common humanity and natural law.
Cameron Hodge: Many argue that morality is a natural instinct, not laws that someone made, or something that has to be taught. In fact, many argue that moral laws are just a way to express the natural instincts we already have in order to make certain decisions. For example, mothers do not have to be taught to love their children and to protect them. They automatically love their children because that is their nature. You do not have to instruct people not to kill. Most people do not go around killing others for fun because that is considered wrong. What is your response to the idea that morality is a natural instinct, not God-given laws or inclinations?
Dr. Baggett: Lewis anticipated this objection, but replied that instincts are rather like keys on a piano, whereas morality is more like the music, directing us which instincts to follow and which to suppress. What’s occasionally instinctive are moral behaviors, and this makes perfect sense in light of creation theology on which wisdom literature’s based; even there, though, without God at the foundation, we’re liable to all sorts of spurious inferences based on the data of life and what seems rational at the time. It’s the love of God that’s the beginning of wisdom. Beyond that, the question can be pressed: what makes it true that mothers should love their children? Most mothers love their children for reasons other than that they’re supposed to, but sadly some mothers don’t love their children. When that happens, there’s something seriously wrong, because mothers ought to love their children. What accounts for the force of this “ought”? Instinct doesn’t liberate us from questions about the ultimate foundation of moral truth.
It’s true that some moral laws are such that we naturally recognize them; this is part of what makes a moral argument for God so powerful. Its starting point can be seen by most everyone. “Of course killing children is wrong,” folks will often say, “and I don’t need God to tell me so.” This is good, because at that point we can have a discussion about what best explains such wrongness, and not just one’s belief that it’s wrong. To stop the effort of explanation too soon leaves too many questions unanswered, and also tends to overlook features of morality that are, though obvious, also puzzling. In an atheistic world, for example, what explains why morality would be binding? Why would we not just feel guilty, but be guilty for violating it? In a theistic world the answer to these questions is clear. Moral truths are rooted in ultimate reality, a personal loving and holy God, and we are responsible for our moral choices in a very deep sense.
Cameron Hodge: Some argue that morality based in religion is also subjective. This means that just because you think Biblical morals are right does not mean they are. How can Christians criticize others as following what’s subjective/relative, when those of secular world views believe as strongly in their point of reference for their beliefsas Christians do? What makes the morals of a Buddhist, Atheist, or anyone else inferior to that of Biblical morals?
Dr. Baggett: I’m something of what you might call a “particularist” when it comes to morality. I don’t begin with a general theory and then infer to basic moral truths. Rather, I start with particular moral judgments I think we can know—like the wrongness of torturing children for fun. This is something on which most everyone will agree. I don’t jump straight to distinctive Christian teachings and insist they’re superior, which would be, as a dialogical method, ineffectual and dogmatic. Moral apologetics, at least the way Jerry Walls and I aim to do it, tries to build a bridge with other people, either from other faiths or atheism or agnosticism. Child torture for fun is not merely subjectively wrong, most will agree, but really wrong, objectively wrong, for everyone. This is one of those moral facts in need of explanation. If someone isn’t willing to grant such a point, moral apologetics has a hard time getting started, but most who deny it are likely not being entirely honest. Do they really think a child being mercilessly tortured, just so we can watch the child suffer and die horribly, wouldn’t be objectively wrong? Of course they think it’s wrong, most people anyway.
The notion that morality is merely relative is very hard to defend, and such an idea violates most people’s deeply felt convictions. There’s no good argument for moral relativism I know of, and plenty of good arguments against it. I taught ethics for years, and tried showing the insights and strengths of various moral theories. Relativism always had the least going for it. Most people think it helps safeguard moral tolerance, but whether it does or not depends on your context. If morality is merely subjective, as the relativists suggest, then whether something is right or wrong for you is relative to your context. If you think moral tolerance in general is a good thing (and indeed it is), you have ample motive to find more principled reasons to believe in it than anything relativism can offer.
Cameron Hodge: The debate on moral tolerance in the United States is heating up. People cry out for tolerance, free speech, and freedom of expression. However, I am troubled by what I see as society’s hypocrisy when it comes to tolerance. It seems that tolerance really means condone, and not only condone, but celebrate. In my eyes, I see society becoming very bigoted, prejudiced, hateful, and intolerant of the Biblical worldview, and of those who hold it. It seems that people are willing to hear what you have to say and consider your points as long as you are not coming from a Christian perspective. As soon as you reveal your Biblical views, people reject the validity of your opinion. Secular society promotes free speech as long as it’s the speech that it wants to hear. I find this hypocritical and unfair. I see society becoming more intolerant the more “tolerant” it becomes. What is your view on how society deals with the Biblical worldview, and the issue of tolerance today?
Dr. Baggett: Well, I think a Judeo-Christian ethic provides a powerful impetus to take tolerance seriously in a principled way. Tolerance, you’re right, is not the same as condoning, or celebrating, and that distinction needs to be carefully maintained. But tolerance is a significant moral attitude and a thick moral concept that has big implications. It means allowing people to think for themselves and come up with their own conclusions. It calls on us to respect the mental freedom of others, and even fight for their right to be wrong, and to be heard even if we think they’re wrong. It ought to mean, on many occasions, agreeing to disagree, and not demonizing everyone who might see things differently. I myself don’t do a lot of work in the area of religious liberties, but it’s certainly an issue that’s been coming to the fore of late more frequently. I don’t think our main job as Christians is to lament sad states of affairs in our culture or express perpetual grievances about how our feelings are being hurt or contributions are undervalued or voices are marginalized in the public square. But religious liberty, if it’s going to continue being taken seriously, needs to be seen as grounded in solid foundations. Copan thinks religious liberty is another fruit of the Judeo-Christian ethic, and I’m inclined to agree. So this means some vigilance may be called for.
There are plenty of open-minded secularists who are basically decent moral people who personally don’t want to see religious liberties significantly curtailed—but, and this is important to notice, there are also plenty of secular folks who’d love to use their newfound political power and momentum, now that various societal tides have turned, to fight for a significant reduction of religious freedoms. Again, I don’t want to overplay this concern, project paranoia, or foist slippery slopes, but personally I sometimes wonder if we’ve even begun to see what intolerance can look like if the commitment to tolerance is primarily to be safeguarded by the good intentions of an increasingly secular culture. Let me reiterate that as a moral apologist, I don’t, for the most part, think of my secular friends and interlocutors as my foes. I’m trying to win them, not just win arguments, and to build bridges and relationships with them. Despite our differences, in a very deep sense we’re on their side; we’re rooting for them; we have gloriously Good News to share with them, about a God who loves them with love beyond imagination and wants them to live the most abundant life possible. Yes they’re sinners in need of forgiveness, as we all are, but the great news is that such forgiveness—not to mention transformation and joy unspeakable, vocation and glory—are being offered to them as God’s gracious gifts.
Cameron Hodge: Furthermore, your book explains that God is the “exemplar” of good. He is the perfect standard for what good is. If he is the perfect example of good, and according to the Bible he is holy and cannot sin nor be in the presence of sin, from where did evil come? Many wonder where evil itself came from before it entered into the world and before it entered into man. If God is eternal, and is the ultimate standard of good, and he cannot be in the presence of sin, where did sin and evil itself come from? Were sin and the state of evil created outside of God’s control?
Dr. Baggett: Evil is a deeply mysterious thing. What Christians can’t say is that something like dualism is true. If God himself is the ultimate good, as many Christians have believed through the centuries, Christianity doesn’t proceed by suggesting that Satan is his equal and evil opposite. Satan is a creature; God is the Creator. Evil is not good’s equal and opposite; it’s more like a perversion or distortion of the good. What we learn from scripture is that God created the world good, but that the serpent was already able to show up on the scene, and this was before the fall of man. So some sort of dark diabolical force was already there. Some chalk it up to the fall of angels sometime before. Maybe that’s right. And surely the fall of mankind because of their freedom to disobey God introduced all manner of darkness into the world. And stable natural laws in a fallen world introduce the possibility of various natural evils.
But rather than neatly explaining evil’s origins, the Bible is preoccupied with all that God has done, is doing, and will do to effect complete victory over evil. What the existence of a good and altogether loving God does is fill us with rational trust and soaring hope that evil will be defeated, in fact, that in a real sense it’s been defeated already, with the death and resurrection of Jesus. That justice and peace will embrace, that evils both individual and systemic will be blotted out.
The existence of evil is actually far more puzzling to explain on atheism than on theism and Christianity. Christianity takes evil very seriously. Its solution called for nothing less than the incarnate Son of God to suffer and die and be raised again in order to put the world to rights. Evil, according to an atheistic conception of the world, is not really a category that makes sense in their inventory of reality. It usually gets reduced by them to what Kant called badness: the opposite of pleasure. But “evil” is a distinctively moral category that only makes sense in a robustly moral context. In fact, perhaps because of this, our atheist friends typically borrow from a religious worldview they’ve rejected to point to the horrors of evil. The world is as it is, however; on their perspective, why would they expect anything different in a determined world? We’d all just be following the script nature wrote for us. Evil in fact ceases being a problem for naturalists, but when evil isn’t a problem for your worldview, your worldview is shown to be seriously deficient. Evil is supposed to be a problem, and for Christianity it is. But it’s not intractable. This is another one of those cases where Christianity can explain what needs explaining better than other worldviews.
If we’re meaningful moral agents, invested by God with real free will, then the choice to hurt a child is deeply culpable. “Evil” is a good word for it. The world really does feature evil. The question is, can one’s worldview make good enough sense of it? Can it explain how bad evil really is, and that it really does need a deep and permanent solution? Christianity can, and offers excellent reason to believe that God is at work addressing the evil in this world, and that ultimately the good will win, life will turn out to be a comedy and not a tragedy, and the sufferings of this world will finally be redeemed.
Cameron Hodge: In light of recent tragedies with police brutality, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks, why does God allow this evil to occur? This is a traditional criticism of Christianity that never grows old. In the shooting of Philando Castile, there was a four-year old girl in the backseat, who witnessed him being shot and killed. This will be an event that will be with this child for the rest of her life, possibly ruining her innocence and damaging her view of people from other racial backgrounds. Most of us realize that no one is innocent, we all have done wrong, thus we understand why we may bear the consequences of sin. We are not innocent. Yet, this four-year old girl was innocent. She is an innocent child. She witnessed evil and experienced evil, it was a traumatic experience. How does one wrestle with the fact that God allows an innocent child to experience this kind of evil? How does one wrestle with the idea that God allows this kind of evil to occur?
Dr. Baggett: The problem of evil is locked in a zero sum game with moral apologetics, and I’m inclined to agree with Kant, in an article he wrote on the book of Job. Kant didn’t think we could always answer the questions about why various evils are allowed. Often that’s a bit beyond our ken and pay grade, but if we’re justified to believe in a good God, we’re justified to believe there’s an answer to evil, and that evil won’t have the last word. In fact, this is one of the real strengths of a Christian worldview, it seems to me. We don’t have to hide our heads in the sand, nor do we have to water down how bad evils really are; nor do we have to abandon hope that there are ultimate answers to the problem of evil. What scripture teaches is that God is in the process of setting things right. It’s we as believers who can have hope, and I think we have great reasons to think it’s a hope that won’t disappoint. God has the resources to redeem the worst of tragedies and balance the scales of justice.
What does, say, naturalism have to offer by contrast? Hope for a world redeemed? Hope that children who suffered and died unjustly didn’t die in vain? No, the world on their view is just tragic, and hope for anything else is ultimately futile. Funny you asked this question, because just today I ran across this passage from Richard Creel:
As long as it is logically possible that evil be defeated, that innocent suffering is not meaningless and final, it seems to me that we have a moral obligation to hope that that possibility is actual. Therefore we have a moral obligation to hope that there is a God because, if there is a God, then innocent suffering is not meaningless or final…. But couldn’t we just hope for the redemption of innocent sufferers without hoping for the existence of God? No, because without God evil could not be defeated; it could only be counterbalanced or outweighed. Why? Because, if there is not God, i.e., no intelligent being responsible for the existence, structure, and parameters of our world, then at least some innocent suffering is absolutely meaningless, purposeless, senseless, and consequently unredeemable—just a tragic fact about reality. The seeming meaninglessness, absurdity, and waste of innocent suffering and tragic loss are overcome only in the existence of God. To be sure, the Holocaust was enormously tragic—but without God it is even more tragic. Indeed, a far greater evil than the evils of history would be that the evils of history will not be defeated because there is no God. This seems to me a terribly important point that Dostoyevsky’s Ivan failed to consider.
Thank you Dr. Baggett for your time, wisdom, and expertise on the issue of morality.