What is good and evil? The meaning of good and evil is much simpler than people realize. Assuming that some actions are objectively morally evil, the only worldview that justifies that belief is Christianity. Assuming that some horrible actions are always wrong, the only way you can justify this belief is by believing in Christianity.
II. What is morality?
Morality is just an expression of what God wants. If God wants it, it is good. If God hates it, it is bad. If God permits it, He is implicitly supporting it, which makes it good. These are the laws of morality. All questions about morality just boil down to what God wants; this is a deontological moral system called Christian Divine Command Theory. Deontological ethical systems are ones that judge good and evil according to rules.
Every single other ethical system falls under four categories of answers that fail to answer moral questions.
III. The First Category of Error: Atheism Is Nihilism
The first category is atheism. All atheists must be nihilists, since their worldview excludes the possibility of the supernatural. Without a supernatural source, human beings are just animals. Animals kill each other all of the time in nature. This is fine, because an animal’s actions have zero moral weight. They are neither good nor evil, because the animal is just a natural object. After all, an animal is a group of molecules just as rocks are groups of molecules. Is it wrong to break a rock? Animals die and kill each other all the time, and human beings are just animals in the scientific, materialistic worldview of atheism.
According to atheism, human life does not matter, and good and evil are fictions we use to describe things we dislike. If a murderer wants to kill an innocent person whom no one knows, then why shouldn’t he? Like the animal, he might stand to profit by this person’s death and will face no consequences. There is no good and evil weight to his actions. It is the law of the jungle.
This system fails to answer moral questions, because it is intuitively wrong. There is a moral weight to actions even if it is impossible to derive from an atheist perspective. Atheists who believe in objective, timeless moral rules simply don’t understand nihilism or are unwilling to accept its implications. Most will agree with beliefs such as: “Torturing innocent people is wrong,” but they simply have no basis for justifying that belief. The reality is that the sun will eventually explode and destroy the human race, and the universe will not be better nor worse without us since life has no value or purpose in their worldview.
IV. The Second Category of Error: Emotivism
The second category is emotivism. Emotivism is the belief that good and evil are decided by empathy and compassion for other people and the group. There are two forks of emotivism.
A. Fork One: Simple Emotivism
The first fork is simple emotivism. Compassion for individual people is good, because loving others is good. Having empathy for another person is good, because it feels good when the other person is happy. Moral statements of good and evil are variations of “I like this,” and “I hate this.” Whether something is good or evil is dependent on the person’s attitude about it. If they like it, it is good. If they dislike it, it is bad. If they permit it, they are implicitly supporting it, which makes it good.
Simple emotivism elevates the individual to God’s level, because good and evil are determined by a person’s likes and dislikes. Furthermore, it confuses feeling good with being good. For example, a robber who stole money will be unhappy if the police arrest him, but it does not mean that the police officer is in the wrong by making the robber unhappy. In fact, the police officer should hurt the robber if the robber tries to escape or resist arrest. The criminal’s happiness has nothing to do with the fair response in this situation.
Simple emotivism also doesn’t solve the problem of the law of the jungle. If Tom feels like helping someone, then it is good for Tom to fulfill his wishes. If Tom feels like hurting someone, then it is still good from Tom’s perspective to fulfill his wishes. Animals function the same way. Emotivism collapses into nihilism, which is intuitively false. The fact that love feels good does not make it good. I should not love a Nazi trying to gas the Jews and assist him in his endeavors. That would be objectively evil.
B. Fork Two: Utilitarian Emotivism
The second fork is utilitarian emotivism. Ethical systems of this strain affirm that good actions are determined by their benefit to the group. Morality is based on how much good an action brings to the whole rather than to single individuals. If something does not benefit the whole group, then it is evil.
This outlook does not set a criteria for “group benefit” that is clear, because there is none. What is good for one group can be bad for another. Slavery in the American South is an example. One response is that if an action does not benefit all human beings, then it is wrong.
This response still believes that the term “benefit” makes sense, since benefits can only be measured by individual desires in this emotivist view. Human desires are conflicting, so which desires take precedent over others? An appeal to the group does not make sense, because majorities can commit great evil. If a robber steals Tom’s money and he wants it back, a group-focused outlook would divide the money between them.
Furthermore, utilitarian emotivism does not answer the more fundamental question of whether good and evil even exist. Are humans just group animals who invent rules to organize behavior towards survival? If that is true, why shouldn’t free riders prey on the system? Any response to such individuals would be a sanctimonious condemnation of a legitimate survival strategy. If Tom wants to cheat the welfare system and live large for the rest of his life on the public dole, why shouldn’t he? Condemning him for not respecting the groups’ needs assumes that Tom should care about the group, but why? Utilitarian emotivism has no answer.
V. The Third Category of Error: Other Religions
The third category includes other religions as alternate forms of Divine Command Theory. This includes all other faiths that believe in gods or a single god from which moral truths come from.
Any Divine Command Theory belief system that cannot solve the Euthyphro Dilemma is false. There is simply no question that it is false. If it holds that morality comes from God, but it cannot solve the Euthyphro Dilemma, then the religion is logically incoherent because it is a fiction. Only Christianity solves the Euthyphro Dilemma. The dilemma is explained in the following excerpt from Wikipedia:
In other words, is God above the good, or is God below the good? Does God look at the rules and tells us what he sees, or does God write the rules?
A. The Dilemma’s First Fork: God Is Below the Rules
If God looks at the rules and tells us them, that means that God is below the rules. God is the greatest thing in the universe, which means that He cannot be below something He can’t change. If God looks at permanent written rules, that means He cannot change them, which means He is not omnipotent, which means he is not God.
B. The Dilemma’s Second Fork: God Is Above The Rules
So what if God writes the rules? God would be above the rules, and so the problem would be solved. The problem with this view is that if nothing is good nor evil until God says so, that means that God could change his mind about good things and say they are now bad. For example, God forbids torturing innocent people and adultery, but this could change if God writes the rules differently. God could change the rules, which means that nothing is permanent. God has no fixed nature. He just writes the rules as He wants to for now.
Furthermore, this means that God isn’t Good. God simply wants things, and will hurt us if we don’t obey Him. God can be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, but he is not omnibenevolent. God is ultimately arbitrary. Good actions are ultimately arbitrary. Goodness does not exist in this type of worldview. Evil can become good at the flip of a switch. Any religion that affirms the existence of true Goodness and takes this position is logically incoherent. This is because it was not formulated by people who knew the Truth.
The way Christianity solves this dilemma is by affirming that God is the Good. God is neither above nor below the Good. God is the Good. This justifies the belief that God is not simply arbitrary, nor is He beholden to standards that exist above Him.
When the atheist says, “Is God’s nature good because of the way God happens to be, or is it good because it matches up to some external standard of goodness?”, the second horn of the dilemma represents nothing new—it’s the same as the second horn in the original dilemma, namely, that God approves something because it’s good, and we’ve already rejected that. So the question is whether we’re stuck on the first horn of the dilemma. Well, if by “happens to be” the atheist means that God’s moral character is a contingent property of God, that is to say, a property God could have lacked, then the obvious answer is, “No.” God’s moral character is essential to Him; that’s why we said it was part of His nature. To say that some property is essential to God is to say that there is no possible world in which God could have existed and lacked that property. God didn’t just happen by accident to be loving, kind, just, and so forth. He is that way essentially.
The meter, as a length, was or can be taken to be defined in terms of the length of this bar. It is not that the bar approximated some abstract measure called a meter. The meter was just defined as being the length of that bar in the Office of Weights and Measures in Paris. That would be a very good example or illustration. God is like the meter bar with respect to the good.
Similarly, God just is the good. He is not only metaphysically ultimate, but he is morally ultimate as well.
Let’s be sure, Matt, that we understand the view I’m defending before I address your questions. The position is not “that God is necessarily good and therefore moral standards of good cannot be said to exist independent Him or outside Him.” God’s being necessarily good is consistent with the view that in every possible world He conforms to some external standard. So that’s not enough. Rather the position is that God’s moral nature is the paradigm of goodness; what is good or bad is determined by conformity or lack thereof to His nature. By analogy think of some audio recording’s being “high fidelity.” Whether or not a symphony recording is high fidelity is determined by its approximation to the sound of a live orchestra. The sound of the live orchestra does not exhibit fidelity to anything else; it just is the standard that determines whether some recording is high fidelity or not. Similarly with God’s nature. Moreover, God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties. Things are right or wrong insofar as they are commanded or forbidden by God.
VI. The Fourth Category of Error: Platonism
The fourth category of error is Platonism. Platonism is the belief that eternal, fixed, absolute moral rules exist outside of people’s minds and the physical world in a supernatural realm.
This view takes on faith that these rules exist. Assuming that they do, the Platonist puts himself in an odd position where he affirms the existence of intelligent, meaningful, thoughts that exist outside of the physical universe. Who thought of them? Craig offers his criticism:
It is virtually universally agreed that abstract objects, if they exist, are causally impotent, that is to say, they do not stand in cause-effect relations. Numbers, for example, do not cause anything. More than that, their causal impotence seems to be an essential feature of abstract objects. The number seven, for example, does not just happen to lack all causal effects; there is no possible world in which seven could effect something. Their essential causal impotence serves to distinguish abstract objects from any entities which just happen to be causally isolated in the world, but which could have had effects, and from God, who could have refrained from creating and so could have stood in no causal relations.
I think it is fair to say that it is hard to believe that such queer objects really exist. Indeed, even many would-be platonists embrace what has aptly been called a “lightweight platonism” which looks suspiciously very much like conceptualism or even nominalism (see Linnebo 2009; Craig forthcoming). They admit that abstract objects are not objects in the ordinary sense of the word but just in the sense that they are the referents of certain abstract singular terms. On this view it would seem fair to say that Wednesday, for example, is an object, since it may be referred to in true sentences like “Today is Wednesday.” If abstract objects have no more reality than Wednesdays, then the affirmation that they exist may have no significance for ontology.
The issue of Platonic moral abstracts is part of a broader debate in Christian philosophy as to whether God preexists abstract objects. Christians must hold that God created everything and is the only thing that existed eternally. Yet, if God created the number three, then how could the Trinity exist before He created it? At least some Platonic abstracts do not preexist God, but they do not exist independently of Him either. God’s thought’s are Platonic abstracts, and as the eternal mind, are intrinsic to His essence. Neither God nor Platonic abstracts preexist each other for they exist together.
Furthermore, if the Platonic abstracts existed independently of God, what practical bearing would they have on human lives? The existence of invisible, metaphysical, moral rules cannot incentivize moral behavior. The moral life is an interpersonal dimension. It is not a sterile physics of good behavior, and is only complete when governed by a personal and living Mind who interacts with real moral agents. Platonism on its own is an incomplete vision of morality that lacks a personal touch.
Christianity is the only rational, ethical belief system because all other alternatives fall into one of these four errors. Assuming that at least some terrible actions are objectively wrong so that nihilism is false, only Christianity offers a belief system that properly justifies a belief in moral rules in a universe that itself is morally structured. No other alternatives exist.