Innate Morality & Godlessness
Is there any good reason—biblical, philosophical, scientific or otherwise—to believe in innate morality?
This post is partly a sequel to my earlier response to Ray Comfort’s video, Evolution vs. God. If you haven’t seen the video or read my comments about the video, check it out here. I don’t intend to rehash that earlier post, nor do I want to address the Creation debate or the human origins debate further. Rather, after watching that video it got me thinking about other areas within apologetics, especially universal morality. It seems that one of Comfort’s major assumptions is that if evolution is true than it undermines the notion of (A) a universal law giver and (B) innate morality. As I noted in my previous article, I do not think that evolution necessitates moral relativism so I think point (A) is unaffected by the debate. What would undermine point (A) is naturalism, not evolution.
But then I got wondering about point (B) innate morality. I’ve always held to something along the lines of innate morality—the idea that everyone in the world inherits a sense of right and wrong—and I believe that the most influential thinker who impacted me the most on this issue would be C. S. Lewis. Yet I started to re-think my position after watching Comfort’s video. I don’t intend to offer any further critique of Comfort’s video, or to connect this discussion to debates about evolution. I simply want to note that listening to his apologetic approach to evangelism and to his comments about innate morality and moral relativism caused to re-think some of my uncritically held assumptions about this issue. I’d like to share some of my thoughts now, admitting that they are tentative and provisional; I’d gladly welcome feedback on my developing thoughts.
I should start by saying that I am unaware of the bulk of philosophical discussions surrounding ethics. I know some of the relevant figures, but if someone with more training in this subject than myself is reading this, please feel free to fill me in. However, after reflecting on this issue further I’m not sure that innate morality fits either my understanding of (1) biblical anthropology or (2) revelation. I will address each in turn.
1) Biblical Anthropology. My understanding of biblical anthropology is in many ways sympathetic with the Reformed tradition (see my two earlier posts on Calvinism here and here). As a Calvinist, I believe that humans are totally depraved. All human faculties are corrupted by sin, including all conceptions of morality. (One can agree with me on this issue without affirming Calvinism, I should note). So humans are neither born with a clear conception of right or wrong, nor with a Lockeian ‘clean slate,’ but rather with an inclination towards sin/evil. One does not need to teach a child to be selfish, but one does need to teach a child about sharing, not taking what does not belong to them, about being nice to other kids, etc. What needs to be taught and instilled in young ones is precisely something they do not comprehend naturally: morals. Nurture and culture play a huge role in this process. Thankfully, much of Western culture is rooted in a morality from the Judeo-Christian worldview. Morality is therefore something we learn and acquire. If this seems like it opens the door to moral relativism then consider my second point.
2) Revelation. The notion of innate morality seems to undercut the essential role of special revelation. As Christians we affirm that there is a universal moral law giver who reigns over the whole universe. Thus, what he says goes. Yet we only know the moral code of this cosmic sovereign by revelation of his commands. We do not know it inherently. In fact, I believe that we inherently resist such a moral code (going back to point #1 above). I am not here claiming that general revelation doesn’t contribute to a notion of morality, nor am I denying the possibility of a “Natural Theology” (whatever that might be, I’ll let Christopher R. Brewer set us all straight), though one form of revelation is certainly more oblique than the other. In any case, the fact that revelation is necessary—whether general, special, or both—undermines the notion of innate morality.
I suspect at this point that one or two of my readers may point to Romans 2 as a counter-argument for the claims that I’m making. You may be thinking, Hey wait a second, Paul says that Gentiles have the law written on their hearts and can do what the law requires by nature! So just in case you’re thinking along those lines, allow me to offer a few brief comments on this passage in anticipation of objections. To put it baldly, Romans 2 cannot be used to support innate morality. The Gentiles in view are most certainly Christians. This is seen in the allusion to Jer 31 and the law being written on their hearts in Rom 2:15 (in Jer 31 this refers to God’s covenant people and so it cannot be used to refer to a notion of innate morality for the average pagan). Also, I believe strongly—along with a number of exegetes, such as NT Wright, Mike Bird, etc—that the phrase ‘by nature’ (φύσει ; phusei) in Rom. 2:14 modifies ‘not having the law’ not ‘do what the law requires.’ Paul is quite clear that it is only through the Spirit that one fulfills the law (cf. Romans 8:4; Galatians 5:14), so it would make no sense—certainly no Pauline sense!—to say that Gentiles can do what the law requires by nature. This interpretation is also corroborated by the use of the same Greek word just a few verses later in Rom. 2:27 to refer to Gentiles as those who are uncircumcised ‘by nature’ or ‘naturally.’ Gentiles, as a category of people in distinction from Jews, are those who are ‘by nature’ both uncircumcised and without the law. The context of Romans 2 therefore makes clear that these Gentiles are Christians, and are in fact doing what the law requires even though they are uncircumcised (which fits perfectly as part of the indictment against certain Jewish paradigms in that chapter).
So to wrap up, I am not convinced that innate morality is worth holding on to (have I missed something?). It is appealed to quite a bit, especially among Christian apologists, but I see no reason to affirm it. It fits my assumptions of humanity better to dismiss it, but more importantly, such a notion of innate morality undermines the role of revelation in making God’s moral code known to us. It is special revelation that keeps us from delving into moral relativism, not some notion of innate morality. In fact, if humanity was truly run by its innate sense of morality, the world would be a godless place indeed.