Why the existence of morality necessitates G-d’s existence.
by Rabbi Yitzchak Coopersmith
Most people believe in the existence of a universal ethic – that right and wrong are real, objectivevalues which prevail for all time and cut across every geographic and societal boundary line; in short, that some things are categorically good and others are unconditionally evil.
Where do these concepts of right and wrong come from?
Anthropologists and sociologists have posited various theories as to the source of right and wrong. These theories generally fall into three categories:
a. Society. Right and wrong are determined solely by the society in which we live. For example, incest is taboo because society has inculcated this belief in us.
b. Survival. Morality is essentially a social contract among members of society. The concept of “right” describes the means by which human society can survive and flourish. “Wrong” is that which is destructive to society.
For example, since I do not want myself or my children to be killed, murder is wrong. Morality, then, is a convention arrived at in order to achieve a stable, cooperative society. For our mutual benefit we have all agreed to live by certain rules; these rules classify actions as “right” or “wrong.”
c. Personal Taste. Morality is simply an expression of personal taste or opinion. It is completely subjective. No external authority dictates it. For example, I like chocolate ice cream; you like vanilla. I like giving charity; you don’t.
We will now demonstrate that, upon closer examination, each of these explanations is flawed and therefore cannot be the catalyst of a universal moral ethic.
a. Society. While it is true that society does have a strong influence on the moral choices of its members, societies do not create their own moral principles. All societies, no matter how diverse, agree on many of the fundamental principles of morality. Individual societies merely direct the application of these principles.
To illustrate, consider the following:
At one time, in Eskimo society, first-born daughters were routinely drowned because they were considered dependents, not breadwinners.
At first blush, this would appear to support the view that each society creates its own morality. After all, the Eskimos unabashedly committed infanticide, an act considered immoral in the Western world.
However, what would happen if an Eskimo were to drown his first-born son?
He would be considered a murderer!
Because taking an innocent life is murder to the Eskimo. The firstborn son is an innocent baby, not a parasite. The taking of an innocent life is murder in any society. All that differs from one group to the next is the interpretation of who is innocent.
To Hitler, Goering was an innocent man. The Jews were not “innocent,” therefore killing them was not a violation of the moral prohibition of murder.
The Eskimo, the Nazi and the common Western man all agree on the definition of murder: the taking of an innocent life. Although they could not disagree more on its application, all have a common understanding of this basic moral precept.
Extremely diverse societies – separated by thousands of miles, vastly different from each other in almost every cultural way -somehow share a common definition of murder.
How can this be?
If morality was a product of society, then diverse societies would create diverse moralities. But they don’t. Even the most dissimilar communities have a uniform understanding of moral principles. The source for morality must therefore transcend society and culture.
b. Survival. One whose highest priority is survival will only make choices that he believes will somehow enhance or protect his prospects of staying alive. Yet the belief in right and wrong, in many, many instances, actually threatens physical survival. It can motivate an individual to sacrifice his well-being or even his life, in defense or fulfillment of a moral principle. How many great people throughout history have chosen to die rather than commit an evil act.
When asked, “Would you rather have been a guard or a prisoner in Auschwitz?” many people respond that they would rather have been the oppressed, than the oppressor.
When asked, “Which would you choose: to be forced to kill one hundred innocent children or to give up your own life?” most people say they would give up their own lives.
If right and wrong were products of the instinct to survive, then we would view as “good” only that which protects and preserves us. However, the desire for morality often puts tremendous stress on our physical bodies, and, in many cases, leads us to risk our own lives. How then, can the “survival” drive be the source of right and wrong?
c. Personal Opinion. One needs only to define the term “personal opinion” to realize that this could not plausibly be the force that has created a universal ethic.
A personal opinion is simply that: a reflection of one’s individual likes and dislikes. No value judgment can be placed upon a personal opinion, and one’s own preferences can never be absolute or binding upon another person.
For example, someone who prefers vanilla ice cream over chocolate is not offended by a friend’s choice of chocolate over vanilla; it is not wrong to prefer the chocolate, it is simply a matter of taste.
When it comes to matters of ethics, however, people do not maintain this attitude. When two parties disagree on an ethical issue, each believes the other position is incorrect and objectively inferior to his own.
The only reasonable source, then, for a universal, eternal standard of right and wrong is a universal, eternal Being. By definition, human beings are limited; their personal whims or opinions cannot create anything absolute or universally binding. Only G-d, who is beyond time and space, who is unaffected by the shifting sands of history and culture, can create a set of standards which, as an expression of His will, reflect universal and eternal truth.
Sometimes, people adopt the position that they do not believe in the existence of right and wrong. Even though they’ve been shown that there is an absolute morality, they cannot allow G-d to enter the picture. In this case, you simply have to point out the overwhelming amount of evidence gleaned from the way they and others live, which clearly demonstrates their belief in right and wrong.
To clarify this point, imagine you are standing at the corner of a busy intersection. Cars are speeding by in all directions. A man stops you and tells you that he thinks you’re both standing in the middle of a rain forest.
How do you determine if the man really believes what he is saying? Ask him to take a short stroll in the forest. If he refuses, or stalls until the light turns green, you know he really does see the cars. His actions belie his words and loudly articulate his true beliefs.
Similarly, when we deal with morality, people may say they do not believe in the existence of right and wrong, but their actions will invariably testify to the contrary. All people conduct their lives as though right and wrong are real values. If someone, G-d forbid, were to commit a terrible act of violence upon a loved one, no one would say, “Well, to each his own. Some like chocolate, others vanilla…” Murder, rape and crimes against humanity are not treated as differences in personal taste.
We take right and wrong very seriously. We will, at times, make tremendous sacrifices for moral principles. We may spend large amounts of time and effort; some of us may even give our lives. We never cease to evaluate the actions, morals and political positions of others. In conclusion, the manner in which we conduct our lives demonstrates that we are aware of an absolute standard of morality.
Thus, if morality is real and absolute, the only remaining explanation for its existence must be that it is imbued within us by G-d, whose authority is likewise timeless and absolute.