Many people believe in universal ethics, i.e., standards of right and wrong that extend across all geographic and temporal boundaries. The popular idea that murder is always wrong -- that there is something unethical about slaughtering guiltless, non-threatening human beings in any country at any period in history -- is an example of just such a universal ethic.
The moral approach to God's existence begins with the question: Why is murder wrong? That is, who or what has the authority to establish such a universal ethical principle? Who or what made murder wrong?
There are many possible answers to this question.
Perhaps murder is wrong because reason -- abstract logic -- so dictates.
The problem with such a proposal is that reason dictates that we take whatever actions will most effectively achieve our goal. Depending on our goal, reason may or may not rule out murder. If our goal is to permanently stop someone from having an effect on the world, the most effective means to that end is to murder that person.
There are those who might object that everyone's ultimate goal is survival, and that the most reasonable way to ensure everyone's survival is to live by and spread the ethic: refrain from doing to others what you would not want done to yourself (e.g., murder). But such an objection is doubly flawed.
First, for many people survival is not the highest value. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots who gave their lives to win World War II were not lunatics; they were highly intelligent military officers who valued Japanese victory more than their own lives. Any student of history could easily list a dozen similar examples of rational people who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of abstract ideals.
Second, even those who consider their own survival their highest value might logically conclude that murdering others is a good idea. Murder, when one can get away with it and benefit in the long run, might be quite rational.
In short: Even the most perfect logic, if founded on an immoral premise, will generate an immoral conclusion. We therefore need not assume that "moral" and "rational" are equivalent. Morality and reason might be completely unrelated. Certain acts might be moral albeit irrational, and others might be immoral yet eminently reasonable. Because there is no inherent relationship between morality and logic, reason cannot be the source of the "murder is always wrong" ethic.
Maybe murder is wrong because someone decided that it is.
This proposal is problematic for two reasons.
First, why should one person set the world's ethical standards? What unique trait could grant him alone the right to dictate world morality? Is it logical that the person with the highest I.Q. or the biggest army or the bluest eyes should determine absolute right and wrong? Should any human quality confer upon its possessor the status of supreme ethical authority? (1)
Second, what was murder's moral status before this person was born and what will it be after he dies? If someone earned the right to dictate morality by being the most unique person alive, then others must have earned this right before him and still others will do so after him. Murder's moral status would then be subject to change every eighty years or so. Thus we would not be able to affirm the premise that murder is always wrong. At best we could say that murder is wrong so long as a certain arbiter is alive. Murder can be eternally and universally unethical only if some eternal, authoritative source says so.
Those who would propose that murder is wrong because our society (or country) decided that it is encounter the same two problems:
There are many societies besides ours. What makes the West a moral authority over certain Eastern and African civilizations that condone infanticide, cannibalism, and other murderous behaviors? Is it logical that one group of people should dictate morality to all the others just because they speak the most articulate English or earn the highest per capita income or boast the highest geographical density of fast-food restaurants? (2)
Paralleling our previous objections, we must also ask what murder's moral status was before Western man condemned it and what it will be after our society's demise. Ostensibly the crown of moral arbiter was bequeathed to our society by earlier civilizations, and will in turn be passed on to some future society. Again we cannot affirm the premise that murder is always wrong. If murder were wrong only because our society said so, then we could at best affirm that murder has been wrong and will be wrong as long as our society survives. But murder can only be eternally and universally unethical if some source older and more authoritative than a society says so.
Maybe a federation of humanity established the eternal, universal moral principles that no person or society can.
Maybe murder is always wrong because the majority of mankind decided so.
This suggestion eliminates the first problem we've encountered (deciding which of many coexisting individuals or societies should rule). Since there is only one group which includes all mankind, that group is clearly the ultimate human authority. This suggestion does not, however, solve the second problem (deciding which of many sequentially existing people or societies should rule). While there is only one humanity, the members of that group keep changing. Every time someone is born, or someone dies, humanity changes. Which era, therefore, has the right to establish the ethical principles for all subsequent generations? What gives the people of 500 BCE or 1500 BCE more moral authority than the people of 500 CE or 1500 CE? Which humanity is the more logical heir to the moral throne?
Ultimately we must admit that murder cannot always be wrong just because a particular generation said so. Once again, we need a more authoritative source for eternal ethics.
The suggestion that murder is wrong because mankind said so generates a practical objection as well. During certain periods of history, the majority of mankind did not seem especially opposed to murder. After all, early man is believed to have spent much of his time either killing people or evading those who sought to kill him.
Even without speculating about prehistoric human values, we can demonstrate that modern man occasionally sanctions murder. Adolf Hitler attempted to murder every Jew in Europe, and he encountered the military opposition of fewer than 20 of the world's approximately 100 nations. Moreover, given that not a single unthreatened country declared war against Hitler, we can even wonder whether the handful of countries that did were motivated by a moral opposition to murder or by a survival instinct. (3)
One might argue that countries were afraid to challenge Hitler because he commanded the most aggressive army on earth, but that -- in its heart -- humanity opposed his genocidal campaign. But if most countries disapproved of murdering innocent Jews, then after the war -- after Germany's defeat and Hitler's death -- they should have enthusiastically condemned the Nazis. Yet, in 1946, when England, France, the United States, and the USSR sought global support for the establishment of an international court to condemn war crimes and try war criminals, only 19 countries responded. (4) If the world kept silent during the war years only out of fear, then why -- when humanity finally had a safe opportunity to declare its disapproval -- were only about a fifth of the world's nations interested?
History suggests that most of humanity did not care what Hitler did, as long as he did it to someone else. Every day of the war, for half a decade, the world reaffirmed its apathy towards Hitler and genocide. (5) And when the war was over, 80 percent of the world's nations declared their indifference by refusing to participate in the Nuremberg trials. If murder was wrong between 1939 and 1946, it was not because humanity made it wrong. Most of humanity did not care.
Thus, for philosophical as well as practical reasons, humanity cannot be the source of our ethic that murder is always wrong.
Maybe murder is wrong because it is unnatural.
Immediately, we re-encounter the question of when in history the ultimate moral principles were established. Nature is always changing, since individual fungi, bacteria, plants, and animals are constantly passing in and out of existence. The natural world we might have consulted a thousand years ago differs radically from our natural world. What gives prehistoric creatures more moral authority than those alive today, or vice versa? Again, any polling date we propose is necessarily arbitrary.
Moreover, even if the coalition of all living things has always agreed on basic ethical principles, that coalition might fall apart tomorrow. At best we could affirm only that a behavior has been historically considered good or evil. What that behavior's moral status will be in the future remains undecided. If we still wish to affirm the premise that murder is eternally wrong, we need a more stable source than nature.
The suggestion that murder is wrong because nature said so also generates a practical objection. If, at any point in history, we polled all living things (again, by watching their behavior), they would almost unanimously be in favor of murder. In nature, life has always been a matter of survival of the fittest, kill or be killed. Lions survive by eating innocent deer (and innocent lions, too, when the deer supply runs short). Weeds survive by strangling other plants and taking over their food supply. Bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their comrades follow similar strategies. Were we to learn any lesson from living things, it would be that murder is acceptable, if not recommended, behavior. And inanimate objects and forces are no kinder. Landslides, tidal waves, earthquakes, and lightning bolts murder indiscriminately. If murder is always wrong, it cannot be because nature made it so.
If murder is always wrong, it must be because nature was overruled. If murder is always wrong, it must be because something greater than nature decided that it should be.
There is a term for that which is greater than nature: the supernatural. One who wishes to affirm eternal, universal ethics like "murder is always wrong," must admit the existence of a supernatural moral arbiter, a God. There is just no other source for such ethics.
This is not a conclusive proof that God exists. Some people believe that morality is an individual, virtually aesthetic preference; that there are no universal rights or wrongs; and that murder is not absolutely evil. There are also people who prefer to believe that murder is absolutely evil, but who will abandon such a position in order to preserve their agnosticism. Both groups will be unmoved by the moral approach to God's existence. There is, however, a third group -- a group persuaded that murder is universally and eternally wrong, and that other absolute moral standards also exist -- and for this group the moral approach to God's existence offers permission to believe.
1. Should one propose that the first man, being the first, had the right and authority to establish ethical principles for all his descendants, we would face the following two problems:
First, why should being first grant some sort of moral authority? Admittedly there was only one first man. But there was also only one second man, and one third man, and one millionth man. Every individual's position in history is unique. Why should being born earlier than other people endow someone with more moral authority?
Second, the archaeological record suggests that man has crafted weapons throughout his history, and anthropologists confirm that murder was in fact no less common among primitive peoples. That would lead us to believe that the first man, the progenitor of the most self-destructive species on earth, was opposed to murder?
2. And should one suggest that the kindest (most moral) country should be appointed the world ethical authority, whose values would determine which country is the kindest? It is obviously tautological to say that the most moral country should establish what is and is not moral behavior.
3. Notably, even the United States involved itself only after being attacked at Pearl Harbor, and Great Britain declared war only after Hitler publicly identified England as his next target.
4. Greece, Denmark, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, Ethiopia, Australia, Honduras, Norway, Panama, Luxembourg, Haiti, New Zealand, India, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
5. Contrary to naive claims that people were silent only because they did not know what Hitler was doing, the government documents and newspaper clippings assembled since 1945 suggest that knowledge of the Holocaust was widespread even during the war. For example, on July 29, 1942, the New York Times reported that "Nazi authorities in Poland are planning to 'exterminate' the entire Warsaw ghetto, whose population is estimated at 600,000 Jews...." For a detailed survey of this literature, see Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1984).
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