Christian Moral Nihilism?

One of the most popular arguments for the existence of God is the Moral Argument. While this takes many forms, the general structure of the argument goes:

P1 If there is no God, then there can be no objective morality.
P2 There is objective morality.
C Therefore, there is a God.

Most scholars who specialize in ethics do not find this argument very convincing. The majority of moral philosophers believe that morality is, in some sense, objective, but do not believe in God, or at least do not reference God in their arguments. However, as somebody with a great interest in the philosophy of religion, I suspect that Christian theology itself may not necessarily support a robust theory of ethics, a theory of right from wrong. In fact, I will argue that some Christian traditions in effect [suppose moral nihilism], the view that there are no objective moral properties.

This may seem a little strange. Isn’t it the Christians who formed an organization called, “The Moral Majority?” Don’t Roman Catholic bishops show up in the newspaper ever few months complaining about how abortion is destroying America? It seems like religious people are constantly telling people not to do certain things? Isn’t that moralistic? How on earth could these people be moral nihilists? All they seem to care about is enforcing their morality on others!

In many of these instances where a person is telling another person what to do, they are asserting a normative, or prescriptive claim: you should do this, or you should not do that. People make normative expressions all the time, and not all of them are moral. Consider if I am teaching somebody how to play volleyball, I’ll say things like, “You can’t kick this.” Many laws are normative without being a matter of ethics: “You need to come to a complete stop at the stoplight before you make a right-hand turn.” Aesthetic opinions are often prescriptive and emotional even when most of us seem to accept that taste in art cannot be settled objectively: “’Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is a masterpiece of genre filmmaking! It totally should have beat ‘Chariots of Fire’ at the 1981 oscars!” Grammar is a matter of prescription, even though there is no objectively correct language, and standards change generation to generation: “’Who’ is for the subject of the clause, ‘Whom’ is for the object of a clause.” Lastly, many people express norms and prescriptions as a way to enforce traditional practices, if for no other reason than because it distresses or disgusts them: “Bobby, take off that pink shirt, you look gay.”

In each one of these instances, the speaker expresses a normative assertion to do or not do something based on their own attitudes or a social or legal convention. These rules are social, and while they are real in the sense that people do notice and utilize them in speech, they are not ontologically real. That is, there is no property of “Traffic Law” that exists in nature independent of human beings, the rules of English grammar would mean little if the language became forgotten, and rules around gender expression vary quite a bit culture-to-culture.

The moral realist (or moral objectivist) will say that moral norms are different than these social or legal norms I listed earlier in that moral statements are not a matter of opinion, attitudes, or culture: moral propositions refer to actual properties of an action or event. Just as I can make objective statements about the mass of an object, or the solution to a math problem, the moral realist argues that I can make objective, true-or-false statements as to whether something is good, or desirable, or impermissible. There are many different forms of how to justify moral realism, if moral facts are natural or non-natural facts, and how we would go about determining what these moral properties even are to begin with, but what’s important for now is to remember that moral realism is not necessarily religious. Several dogged defenders of moral realism have been atheists: Russ Shafer-Landau, Philippa Foot, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Thomas Nagel all explicitly argued that the notion of moral judgements are not culturally relative, and have an objective, rational basis.

A consequence of moral realism is the belief in the independence of moral properties. The argument is as follows:

P1 If there are objective moral properties, then the attitudes of moral agents are not necessarily relevant to the existence of those properties intrinsic to the actions.
P2 If an action can be objectively good, irrespective of the attitudes of the moral agent, then there can be a case in which a moral agent performs a good action, despite their otherwise troublesome character.
C Therefore, the existence of the property of goodness does not necessarily require a particular mental state, attitude, or political/social commitment for the property to hold for a given action.

While this seems very intuitive, traditional Christian theology (and in particular, Calvinist theory) holds to the concept of Original Sin, which rejects this principle. In short, Traditional Original Sin Theology (TOST going forward) states that God created all life perfectly, but human beings deliberately violated God’s trust, now all of creation is “Fallen,” and we categorically suffer from “Total Depravity” by our nature. As we suffer from sin, all of our actions fail to live up to God’s standards, and we deserve damnation. The only thing that can heal this affliction is the Grace of God, which we receive as a total gift; our “good” works mean so little to God compared to our systemic, endemic sinful nature. According to TOST, without God, we cannot be good.

TOST conflicts with moral realism’s principle of independence, and can easily lead to a few dead-end conversations. I once found myself in such a situation. During my undergraduate education, I lived and worshiped at the student Episcopal campus ministry house. I very much enjoyed my time there, and found great solace with the fellow students and the local church community. One summer, when an older adult from an evangelical background hear I lived in a church community, she began to ask me a number of questions, expressing a sense of skepticism as to whether my church was a “real” Christian church or not (notice how Evangelicals often say, “Christians and Catholics,” as if Catholics aren’t Christians? I’m sure many of them know nothing of Christian Orthodoxy, either), and asked rather bluntly why I went there. “Well, they’re good people,” I said. “What do you mean by ‘Good?’” she asked, “Nobody is good except God.”

That was a bible quote (Luke 18:19), and arguably one taken out of context, but I suddenly found our conversation took a sharp turn to the unproductive side. In this conversation, I held to a moral realist’s interpretation of Good, as in, my church peers were loving, supportive, welcoming, and all the other virtues that one could intuitively consider representing the property of good. My conversation partner, at least in this discussion, seemed committed to a skepticism about the intrinsic property of goodness. Unless this group upheld or represented a very specific theological vision, then she appeared to deny that the actions of my friends were good, even if they were welcoming, friendly, supportive, and so forth. She was expressing what could be considered a nihilistic (denial of existence) view on intrinsic value. The argument would go like this:

P1 If TOST is true, an agent under Original Sin categorically does wicked things. No reference to the actions themselves changes this.
P2 A moral agent or action without Original Sin (Jesus Christ and the Immaculate Conception of Mary, respectively) is said to be good if in accordance with God’s Commandments, while an agent afflicted with original sin who does the exact same action cannot consider that action good.
P3 Following from premise one and premise two, moral properties are not independent features of an action, as the goodness of an action is contingent on the sinfulness of the agent or action.
C Therefore, there are no objective moral properties.

So if Christians are nihilists in some sense about morality, why on earth do Christians seem to talk about morals so much? The answer is, Christian morality, especially for those committed to TOST, is subjective. God’s commandments are subjective edicts, as they are God’s attitudes; we are to obey them because the ways of God are just, and God’s righteousness cannot be questioned. There is no law or property independent of God’s attitudes that constitutes goodness. Thus, God’s commandments have more in common with the social and legal norms I outlined earlier than with the moral realist’s notion of an objective morality.

For those who grew up outside of a Christian tradition, this might not make a lot of sense. What would keep God’s commandments from being totally arbitrary? I may wonder. Or what if God’s commandments go against our moral intuitions? Disagreements over abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental control, the State of Israel, Euthanasia and a host of other moral issues often clash along the lines of one party holding to the (perceived) edicts of God, and another making arguments based on potentially objective (or at least secular) moral properties. How could we possibly resolve these conflicts, if one side genuinely believes that moral reasoning outside of the edicts of God is categorically false?

I believe we could make two theological moves to help resolve the riff between the secular moral realist and the Christian moral subjectivist. The first is to suggest that there is not a stark separation between God and Nature, and thus moral properties could be natural properties while also being instantiations of God. Second, TOST is not the only reading of the Bible and Christian tradition. Total Depravity comes from the tradition of St. Augustine, and some churches, especially the Eastern Orthodox churches, have refrained from this extreme reading of the fallenness. Perhaps then, these two moral traditions, the philosophic and the theological, may find one day they were climbing the mountain from different sides.

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