Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Open Forum Response: Can one use reason alone to make moral decisions?

A Quick Introduction.

Not long ago, I had the privilege of speaking to a Christian student group at Christopher Newport University. The topic for the evening was “The Problem of Evil and Suffering.” Much of material for the talk came from the piece I wrote on "
The Three Faces of Evil and the Christian Response."

This posting emerges from a question I received during the Q & A time. The question was posed by a philosophy student, who is also a Christian, concerning something he was gleaning from his lecture notes in a moral philosophy class. I thought this question was very fitting and very important to the context of my talk for the evening. Let me also state that it is a question that I firmly believe that we apologists need to be able to respond to with precision. The question is as follows: “Do you believe that it is possible to use logic to make moral decisions.”

In this posting I will attempt to provide you with one way of responding to this question.  In essence this essay will be my response to this question during the question and answer session. My answer will be directed at the nerve of the question; which is the futile attempt to bypass a moral Lawgiver in one’s moral decision making and thus stick a dagger in the heart of the moral argument for the existence of God.

What, if any categories are present in the question?

Allow me to restate the question in order to set the table for the approach to the question: “Is it possible to come moral decisions using logical reasoning alone?”  In this question, there are two (2) categories present. The first is a moral category which is the end result of the question.  The second is a category of logic or reason, which is the means to the end of the goal.  Tying it all in one big package it should sound like this:  If I can use sound logical reasoning to make my moral and ethical decision, then who needs a “moral lawgiver (i.e, God)? 

Is it possible to make sound moral decisions using logical reasoning?  What is involved in using sound logic?  Allow me to build my case by giving us a short summary of the laws of logic.

What is involved in the use logic?

Logic is “the study of right reason or valid inferences and the attending fallacies formal and informal.”[1]   Such a study is not without laws for reasoning rightly.  Many of us know these laws to be known as the laws of logic.  Aside of the cohesive and coherence theories for testing truth, there are essentially four laws that I will give a quick description here.

The first law is the cardinal law of logic, and is often disputed one by those embracing philosophical and moral relativism.  This law is known as the  law of noncontradiction (A ≠ non A), which states one cannot make a statement that is both true and false at the same time and expect it to be true for both parties.

The second law is known as the law of identity (A=A).  This law states that something is what it is by its very definition.  A car is a car.  A truck is a truck.  A bachelor by definition is a man who has never been married.  It does not matter what the television program on ABC says about the definition of a bachelor.   A widower is a man who has been married, but is no longer married because his wife is deceased.

A third law pertains to the law of the excluded middle term.  This law states that a statement is either true or false.[2]  Think of this law as claiming that there is no middle ground for a statement being somewhere between being true and being false. Every statement has to be one or the other. That’s why it’s called the law of excluded middle.  It is because it excludes any middle ground between truth and falsity.

So we have the law of non contradiction, the law of identity, and law of the excluded middle term.  Some folks, myself included, bring a fourth law known as the law of rational inference.  This law simply presents the case that words mean what they mean.  Let me give you a quick example.

Suppose I were to tell you that I was going to rob the XYZ First National Savings Bank.  Let’s also assume, that you happen to do your banking at this same bank.  What would you be thinking if I told you that I was going to rob your bank?

You would mostly likely call the police, and possibly have them set a trap to catch me in the act. You would at least do something to prevent me from stealing money (your money) from your bank.  Words mean what they mean, even in a post modern society, especially when they affect us.

Now that we know the laws, let me bring the answer to question in for a landing.

Bringing the Answer to Rest.

Let me go back and state this student’s question again for us. “is it possible to come moral decisions using logical reasoning alone?”

Addressing the question posed at the Q & A, it is one that emerges from a moral theory called moral integration theory.  Moral integration theory is a moral theory being thrown around by those seeking globalization and a globalized ethic.[3]  Thankfully the student was not embracing it.

So in order to answer this question from the floor, it becomes necessary expose the underlying presuppositions within the question.  How do we do this?  One way is asking a question that hits the nerve of the issue.  That question is “since we have discussed the laws of logic and we can agree that they are absolute, where do the laws of logic come from?”

You see if there is foundational starting point for logic, known as the laws of logic, then there must be a starting point that guides the capacity that we have to think logically and critically.  The same goes for morals that are grounded in some kind of ethical framework.  Here is where the problem lies.  

This is where the fundamental nerve of the question seeks to rip the heart out of the moral law argument!   If there is no starting point for my logical capabilities, then I become my own logician and standard for my moral thinking.  At the same, if there is no moral Lawgiver, then there is no moral law.  What are the end results?  Those results bring to light three significant problems that manifest themselves logically problematic, morally bankrupt, and existentially dangerous.  

The first problem is a logical one.  Atheists, verificationists and “Nones”  (skeptics hereafter) are trying to tell us that one only needs to use logical reasoning in order to come to their moral conclusions.  Breaking this down, if God does not exist, then it is totally reasonable, to them and for them, to come to moral conclusions using their own logical capacities.  But is this really true?  Are the logical categories, which they espouse, congruent with moral categories and the moral standard in which they subject themselves and everyone else?  Or are the categories of reason and morals mutually exclusive from one another; and based upon an objective standard?  

Earlier I posed a question as to where is the origin for the laws of logic.  Some skeptics would agree that those laws are absolute, but would disagree on the origin.[4]  But like the origin for the laws of logic, the origin for morals and ethics is inescapable.  

From the Christian worldview context, ethics and morals are based upon an absolute moral Lawgiver.  That same Absolute Being we call God is also the origin for our capacities to reason coherently and cohesively under the laws of logic.  However the skeptics all say “No!” and in that “No!” there is the emphatic denial of absolute moral categories.  In their “moralizing,” they take what is understood to be sound logical reasoning, and smuggle in moral categories that only belong to a biblical worldview.  So where do morals and ethics come from?  Depending upon the worldview an absolute moral “lawgiver” cannot be avoided.

This second problem simply stated creates a slippery slope on what ethical moral actions are reasonably right and reasonably wrong.  

While denying God, and smuggling in moral terms only sourced only in a biblical worldview, one is forced to acknowledge God or reject God, and become their own moral lawgiver.  Sure a skeptic can do morally “good deeds”, and these actions can appear very reasonable.  However how does one determine one moral action as being morally right?  How can one skeptic say that it is is immoral to torture babies and another to hold a converse view from the same philosophically naturalistic worldview?  Why is it good to show mercy to one and not show mercy to another?  The last I knew, this was something only attributed to a perfectly absolute and moral God.[5]  In essence what this means is the skeptic becomes their own “God” in making their moral pronouncements and decisions.  

This is the slippery slope that leads us to the third problem, the existential ramifications of “reasonably moral” decisions devoid of a moral Lawgiver.  What do we see from history is that we will find that we will not have learned from our mistakes if things keep going in the direction they are going.  This leads us to the third problem.

Indeed this third problem is an existential one.  What does it mean when we abandon the standards of sound reasoning in our morality given to us by an absolute God?  What does it look like when we make ourselves the final source for ethics and morals via the means of our fallen reasoning capacities?  

It was the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who asserted that the twentieth century man would come of age. By this he meant that the atheist of the twentieth century would realize the consequences of living in a world without God, for without God there are no absolute moral values. Man is free to play God and create his own morality.[6]  We don’t have to look too far back into history to see that he was right in this.  But what about today?  What about some of the decisions in this nation of recent days? I think it is very clear that we can look in our “own backyard” to see what happens when ethics and reason based upon and absolute framework are jettisoned for a rationale of doing “what is right in our own eyes”[7], in our very own nation.

Allow me to paint two scenarios for us.  There are plenty of others, but I would like to just get a glimpse of two that could become cultural norms in pockets of this nation unless God’s people step up and follow the Lord come what may.   These two issues are sanctity issues. 

The first deals with the being a sanctity of life.  Oddly enough, I am not talking about the sanctity of life in the womb but the sanctity of a life that has lived and is now wanting or being pressured to die.  What has been going on for years in Denmark with the acceptance of legalized euthanasia has now become legal in the states of Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington (not DC).  Where is the sound reasoning in these laws and whose moral standard are these decisions based upon?  Whose moral framework is being exercised here?

The second issue is related to the sanctity of marriage, which has been a long heated battle for several administrations over the years.  Just recently, saying the last few years, laws being passed in Maine, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Washington and a few others, that allow same-sex couples to be “married.”  Even Minnesota, this past election prevented the failure of passing a law against same sex marriage.  Where is the sound reasoning in these laws and whose moral standard are these decisions based upon?  Whose moral framework is being exercised here?

Do you see how this is problematic?  Can we honestly think that we can use our reasoning capacities devoid of the One who gave us the ability to use them and make sound moral judgments?  Let me wrap this up.


Whenever we think that we can jettison God as the absolute moral Lawgiver, we run the risk of creating a “God” we have in our own minds.  The skeptic can reject the existence of God, but in their moralizing and reasoning, they are forced to exercise their own moral (amoral/immoral) decisions.  When they exercise their “absolute moral framework” they run into a slippery slope of showing mercy, or being moral, by their definition, to whom they choose.   The end result is a dangerous slippery slope that clearly demonstrates that we have not learned from the past century.   

So my answer to this question is no, one cannot come to moral decisions using logical reasoning alone.  The only way that can be done is IF there is a moral absolute Lawgiver, who has given us the capacity to reason and do it logically, then my answer would a resounding YES.  But throw that moral absolute Lawgiver aside and heaven help us with the conclusions that can manifest itself on our fallen reasoning apart from that absolute moral Lawgiver we know as God.

"Thank you for your question. It is one that I think we all need to pay heed to in the coming days."


[1] Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks.  Come Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 12.

[2] Wikipedia has a good entry on this law, found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_excluded_middle.  This law is not to be confused with the fallacy of the excluded middle, which essentially tries to make the argument that just because there are some things in common, it does not make the case for all things in common.  For example, Just because Jesus and Mohammad had great followings and were founders of large religions, it does not mean that they the same as far as their pointing people to “God.”  Just go to their respective places of burial and see who is in their grave and who is not.

[3] For more information on moral integration please see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2009/07/moral-integration-or-the-pros-and-cons-of-moral-absolutism-and-ethical-pluralism/.  Vojko Strahovnik also has a paper online in Google Docs (PDF) were he defends this view in pursuit of a global ethic.  Search “moral integration” and it will come right up.  

[4] See this great debate, Is the Foundation for Morality Natural or Supernatural?  a debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcwJiF9nVjE)

[5] Exodus 33:19, And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”

[6]Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. VII (New York: Doubleday, 1963), 405-406.

[7] See Judges 17:6; 21:25

"Thank you for your question. It is a very important question that I think we all need to pay heed to in the coming days."

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