In Practice, Objective Morality Needs No Ultimate Source
In the short video below, Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft goes looking for the ultimate source of morality, doesn’t find it in evolution, reason, conscience, human nature, or utilitarianism, but calls off the search when he starts talking about the laws of morality, i.e., those laws that tell us what ought be, directing and ordering right human behavior. Kreeft argues these these laws, which he says must come from a cause apart from the physical world and therefore above nature, suggest a supernatural lawgiver or moral commander. Consequently, says he, “whenever you appeal to morality, you are appealing to God,” to something religious, whether you know it or not, even if you think you’re an atheist.
Putting aside Kreeft’s neglect to grapple with the arguments put forward by evolutionary biologists and psychologists, utilitarians, and other theorists he’s supposedly rebutting—his presentation clocks at just over five minutes—he makes a foundational assumption that few if any of his imagined interlocutors would share. The persuasiveness of his argument presupposes that morality, as actually practiced, needs an ultimate source, but this presupposition is demonstrably untrue. We make objective moral arguments all the time without ever asking or answering where our morality, so to speak, comes from. We have reasons, and if our reasons refer to principles or to things beyond our likes and dislikes (e.g., human dignity, the value of life, a conception of justice), then we have at hand an objective morality and possibly a sound and persuasive one.
Kreeft speaks of moral laws and commands, and so it’s understandable that he would infer a lawgiver and moral commander to explain his morality, but outside his moral universe, people justify their morality just fine without ascending to a supernatural plane. They may appeal to axiomatic principles allegedly intuited, deemed self-evident, or taken on faith. Proving the existence of God by demonstrating the supernatural origin of morality has little appeal to those whose moral thought begs for no such origin. Besides, even if we get to the level of a divine lawgiver, the question remains why I should obey this being. Any answer given would be intelligible on purely “natural” terms. Heaven and hell, for example, make sense to us as places of happiness and misery, but happiness and misery make sense without getting into ultimate supernatural origins.
Religious thought can contribute to moral thought, but unless you’re looking for certainty and to tie up all conceivable loose ends, I don’t see why Kreeft’s line of thought here would be all that convincing.