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Morality without God?

Dialoguing with a Dartmouth professor who says there is

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

Confirmation of biblical wisdom came earlier this fall from an unlikely source: an Ivy League savant who says it's wrong to depend on the Bible.

The prestigious Oxford University Press sent me the new book Morality Without God by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a Dartmouth professor. (I'm going to quote him a lot, so I'll use his initials.) WSA begins by complaining that his students quote to him Dostoevsky's favorite line, "If God is dead, everything is permitted." WSA then argues that we don't need God: We all should simply agree not to harm others-cause death, pain, or disability-unless there is "adequate reason."

Wondering if WSA is one of those exceedingly rare secular professors with the courage to be pro-life, I emailed him to ask. He responded that there is no "simple solution to this complex problem . . . the moral problem of abortion cannot be solved by citing religious texts or religious leaders."

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Hmm . . . How can it be solved? WSA wrote, "What matters is the present and future harm to the fetus and others. This does not solve the problem, but it tells us where to focus our discussions. I hope this helps."

Hmm . . . It helps only if WSA can tell us how to compare "harm to the fetus" (death) to other harms, so I emailed him again. He responded, "The bottom line is that I think some moral problems are insoluble. . . . They are just too difficult for us to figure out. . . . The answer, 'I do not know,' should become common."

Hmm . . . I asked WSA whether people could really make "I don't know" the default statement. He responded, "Why not? People get used to having a belief about everything, but they do not have to. Life can be lived like an experiment where you guess but do not believe until you see how it turns out."

Wow. My first thought was that he was describing how liberals lived in the 20th century. Let's wait and see how the rule of Stalin, Mao, Castro, and other Communists turns out: We don't want to assume that the preaching of class conflict, envy, and resentment will have any real-life effects.

My second thought was that WSA is right. Chapter 1 of Proverbs declares that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." Biblically, those who do not believe in God should truthfully say, "I don't know."

But back to abortion. Ronald Reagan's logic was that if a hunter sees movement in the forest and doesn't know whether it's a deer or a person, he should not shoot. But WSA suggested in his book Moral Skepticisms (2006) that since we don't know whether abortion is morally wrong, it's unfair for employers to insist that health plans not pay for abortions.

Hmm . . . Health plans should pay for an abortion even though we know abortion does not protect the health of the unborn child? I asked WSA, and he responded by saying that abortions can promote the health (physical and psychological) of the employee.

So there we go. In theory, a person might say he doesn't know what's ethical in regard to abortion. In practice, he or she has to choose. Should a college cover abortion in its health plan or not? Gotta choose. A young man calls up and says his girlfriend is pregnant. Gotta choose. A professor claims to ride the fence. Gotta choose.

Four conclusions:

1. In many situations facts don't speak for themselves: That's where presuppositions and assumptions-worldviews, in short-enter in. Colleges should teach students to analyze situations and learn that ideas always have consequences.

2. Christians should not talk so much about "morality," a word derived from mores, the beliefs of a particular tribe. Ethics, however, are based on ideas that are true at all times and in all cultures. The ethical problem of abortion can only be solved by consulting wisdom that comes from God.

3. Chapter 3 of Proverbs has it right: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding." Those are deadly words to those who assert that they have no need of God. Those are words of life to those who have learned differently.

4. "If God is dead, everything is permitted."
If you have a question or comment for Marvin Olasky, send it to molasky@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Marvin Olasky, click here.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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