(A short story. Continued from Part 3.)

Amanda asked, “But what about environmental morality or animal cruelty? Those things don’t have anything to do with the value of human life and there are very clear moral issues at stake.”

Professor Harris held up a hand. “Actually, if you think about it, the moral aspects of nature and the animal kingdom are always based on the human element. For example, pick any environmental issue…”

Amanda eagerly began listing off issues, counting them on her fingers. “Um…deforestation, climate change, overpopulation, pollution…”

The professor chuckled as he cut her off. “Well, hang on, Amanda. That’s four issues. But okay, let’s look at them. Because I think we’re going to find that without humans in the picture there is no moral problem.”

Professor Harris walked over to the whiteboard and wrote the word deforestation. Turning back to the class he said, “Deforestation is only a problem when it’s humans who are over-harvesting forests. When it’s a natural process caused by physical forces—like when a lightning strike starts a forest fire—it’s not a moral issue at all. In fact, it’s not even called deforestation; it’s just nature being nature.”

Heads nodded around the classroom as he wrote the phrase climate change underneath deforestation. “Suppose for the sake of argument that 100% of all worrisome changes to the Earth’s climate were caused by the blind forces of nature. Would it still be a moral issue?” Heads shook in the negative as he continued. “Of course, not. We don’t accuse mindless, unguided natural forces of wrongdoing. The moral charges we level are against man-made climate change.”

Professor Harris then added the words overpopulation and pollution to the list and continued. “Overpopulation is only a moral issue when it comes to humans. The overpopulation of fish, insects, or trees is not a moral problem. And in the same way, pollution is only considered a moral issue when it’s humans doing the polluting. If the pollution comes from volcanoes or natural emissions of sulfur or nitrogen it’s not immoral. It’s just, once again, nature being nature.”

He set his marker down and continued. “The bottom line is that morality only applies to human beings. Nature on its own is amoral and entirely unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of something.”

Amanda looked unconvinced. “But what about all the animals that suffer from those actions? Animal cruelty is a moral issue.”

“The same thing holds true in terms of animals. The only kind of animal cruelty considered immoral is that inflicted by humans, right? When animals are cruel to one another—like the adult lion killing the cute little baby cheetahs—it’s just nature being nature. In the natural world of the environment and animals, nature is indifferent to the moral rightness or wrongness of something.”

A heavyset student in a DKNY ball cap raised his hand and spoke. “Yo, prof, are we saying that because objective morality exists, this means that human life has absolute value?”

“In one sense, yes,” said the professor. “Objective morality is airtight evidence of the absolute value of human life. But it’s not the reason that human life is valuable, it’s only a descriptive byproduct of it.”

“Whadyou mean?”

Professor Harris sat on the edge of his desk. “I mean that the absolute value of human life is the root cause or the underlying fact that makes objective morality possible. For example, it would make sense to say, ‘Because human life has absolute value, we should treat one another with kindness and respect’. But it doesn’t make sense to say, ‘Because we should treat one another with kindness and respect, human life has absolute value’. Does that make sense?”

The student nodded in agreement and John spoke up. “On what basis can we claim that human life is valuable in an absolute sense?”

Professor Harris took a moment and then stood up again, pacing slowly as he addressed the room. “This is a tough one because the absolute value of life means that human life has value even when the prevailing opinions of society say otherwise, right? No matter how many Nazis thought it was okay to kill innocent Jews, we know that the wrongful killing of one human being by another is objectively immoral. I mean, it’s right there in the definition of the word: murder is defined as the wrongful killing of one human being by another human.”

Seth spoke up. “Yeah, and no matter how many American slave owners felt it was morally acceptable to enslave and abuse innocent Africans, we know it’s objectively wrong to steal an innocent human being’s freedom and cause them undue pain and suffering. And that’s true regardless of any person or culture’s opinions, feelings, or preferences.”

“Well,” John said, thinking out loud. “If human life has value regardless of anyone’s opinions, feelings, or preferences then the ultimate ground for that value has to from outside of the human race.”

The professor furrowed his brow. “I don’t think so. Not necessarily.”

“Sure it does!” said Seth, excited. “Think about it. The value of something is always determined by measuring it against a standard outside the thing itself. When we said a car was more valuable than a phone charger we were measuring those things against cost, so our standard of measurement was money. So to determine which kind of life is more valuable between a tree, a dog, and a human, we have to measure them against a standard that exists outside of trees, dogs, and humans. Otherwise, any value we come up with will be self-referential and relative.”

“Interesting,” granted Professor Harris. “But what else exists in nature that could be a standard for the valuation of human life?”

After a short pause, a tentative voice in the back spoke up. “The universe?”

“The universe?” Professor Harris paused. “Well, a universe full of non-life would be amoral and indifferent, right? Morality requires persons. So anything we point to in nature—whether its forces like gravity or the entire universe itself—would be inanimate and therefore unable to confer value on anything. In other words, non-life can’t be used as a standard for measuring the value of life. Just like we talked about earlier, without human beings morality does not exist. Which is why I don’t think the ultimate ground for the value of human life will be found outside of humanity.”

Amanda spoke up. “Then it sounds like we’ve talked ourselves into a corner here. We’re saying the absolute value of human life can’t be grounded in non-life or in life.”

A contemplative hush fell over the room. “That must mean God exists,” Seth surmised. The professor raised an eyebrow while skeptical murmurs broke out around the classroom. “No, hear me out. It’s obvious the absolute value of human life can’t be grounded in non-life, so it has to be grounded in life, right? But we’ve already established it can’t be grounded in plant, animal, or human life. So there must be a level of life above human life that serves as the standard by which the value of human life can be measured.”

The professor shook his head slowly. “That might make for a fun academic theory but it doesn’t jive with reality. First of all, god isn’t real. That’s just a man-made concept.”

Seth sat forward in his chair. “But for the sake of argument just suspend your disbelief for a minute and walk with me through the logic.”

“Alright,” agreed the professor, folding his arms and sitting back in his chair. “Let’s suppose some sort of creator god exists.”

“Okay, so if the premise that ‘God created human life’ were true, it would instantly solve all our problems; it would drop in place like a perfectly-shaped puzzle piece. If rather than emerging from the primordial sludge in a mindless process of evolution, human life was created by God, that would explain why human life has objective value…”

“Well, hang on, Seth,” Professor Harris cut in. “You’ve got a couple big holes in your theory already. First of all, you’re presupposing mankind was created by a benevolent god. But if we were created by a malevolent god who intended to create demons than our entire moral standard would be turned on its head. Things like greed, deceit, and hatred would be considered high moral virtues.”

“True. But they’re not. As my uncle’s favorite Yiddish proverb says, ‘As di bubbe volt gehat beytsim volt zi gevain mayn zaidah’.

“Which means?” asked the professor.

“It basically means ‘If my grandmother had balls she’d be my grandfather’.”

At this, the entire class erupted in laughter. After a moment Seth continued, “It’s a funny saying, but it’s perfectly appropriate for your point. Yes, maybe a creator god could have been malevolent and turned our moral code on its head. But that’s not how our universe turned out. In the actual world, our highest objective moral virtues are things like love, kindness, bravery, and honesty.”

Professor Harris shrugged and continued on. “Okay, well, another big problem is that your theory doesn’t explain why human life is more valuable than plant life or animal life. Are you suggesting that your creator god only made human life and all other life forms came from some other source? Because all of the monotheistic religions that believe in a creator god—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—they all claim that God created all life, not just human life.”

“True. And I was trying to keep the approach broad in terms of specific religious teachings, but you make a good point and it seems a distinction is in order. So let me refine the theory: If all life was created by the Judeo-Christian God, Who uniquely created mankind in His image, it would explain why human life has objective value, and why we’re more valuable than plants or animals or material objects.”

The teacher let out a skeptical grunt. “So now you’re saying the best explanation of objective morality is not a generic creator god, but the Judeo-Christian God specifically? Why not Allah? Islam teaches that mankind is a special act of creation, too.”

“Yes, but they don’t believe mankind was created in the image of God. That’s an important distinction because only in the Judeo-Christian God can we find the ultimate authority needed to ground morality. Why is hurting other people wrong? Because the people you are hurting have value. Why? Because they were created in God’s image. The same holds true for stealing, cheating, lying, racism, murder, rape and the like. These things are wrong because they inflict pain, suffering, and damage on people who were created by God in His image.”

“Okay,” Professor Harris said, scratched his chin. “Okay, I’ll grant that your argument is logically valid in the sense that your conclusion is necessary if all your premises are true. But I don’t accept your premise that a benevolent creator god exists.”

“Fair enough. You can deny God exists. But we’ve already agreed that objective morality exists, so that leaves you in a bit of a jam. How would you explain its existence?”

“I don’t know. And there’s certainly no shame in admitting one doesn’t have all the answers.”

“I agree with you there. I don’t have all the answers either. But we’ve just outlined a framework in which you’ve left yourself with very limited choices as to where the answers might come from.”

“How so?”

“Well, we can rule out finding the answer in the inanimate physical universe, because non-life can’t be the source of objective morality. And we’ve established that evolution can’t explain it either, nor any level of plant, animal or human life. So what else is there?”

The professor shrugged, deep in thought.

John spoke up. “I think logic demands that we look outside of the natural world to find it.”

Professor Harris frowned. “Asking me to realistically consider that the source could be supernatural is the intellectual equivalent of asking me to consider it could be Santa Claus.”

John smiled and replied, “Only if you’ve pre-decided that nothing could possibly exist outside of nature.  I suppose your other option would be to change your mind and decide objective morality doesn’t exist after all, and that all morality is actually relative. But, of course, from a logical perspective that would leave you with both feet firmly planted in mid-air.”

The professor grinned at the Schaeffer reference as the class looked to him for his response. “So you think you hoisted me onto the horns of a dilemma, do you?”

“Actually no,” said Seth. “It’s actually a trilemma because there is a third option available. You could accept that the best way to ground the objective value of human life is in the existence of a Creator God who fashioned mankind and gave us intrinsic dignity and value by creating us in His image.”

Professor Harris scoffed. “Yeah, that just doesn’t hold water. I’ve seen too many good atheists whose moral virtue puts to shame the behavior of many religious people. You don’t need to believe in a god to be a moral person.”

“Agreed. And I’m not saying that if someone doesn’t believe in God they can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, or can’t behave in moral ways. I’m only saying that apart from God they can give no ultimate reason that something is right or wrong.”

Professor Harris shrugged. “You don’t have to have an ‘ultimate reason’ before you can call something right or wrong.”

“That’s true. Moral relativism works in general for getting you through your day. Or even for getting you through your entire life, if you’re the kind of person who is content with the bliss of ignorance. But the moment you shine the light of real inquiry on moral relativism, it melts like an ice cube in the sun.”

“Yeah, and we’ve been watching it melt during this entire conversation!” Amanda laughed.

John said, “Maybe using moral relativism—or at least leaving one’s moral reasoning unexamined—works so well in our day-to-day lives because we all have an inherent sense of objective morality sort of baked into us.”

“Good point,” said Seth. “And Christianity specifically teaches that every human being bears the image of God and that He has written His law on our hearts. This is even true of humans who don’t believe in God. In other words, we have all inherited, as part of our human nature, an intrinsic sense of right and wrong.”

Professor Harris replied, “So you’re saying that the unbeliever is being intellectually inconsistent when he claims there is an objective moral standard but there is no god.”

“Yep,” replied John. “That’s like claiming books exist but not believing in authors.”

Professor Harris found this analogy funny and chuckled out loud. “That’s pretty good actually. In the same way that the existence of a book logically requires the existence of an author, the existence of objective morality logically requires the existence of a god. Nice.”

“Right,” said Seth. “The bottom line is that without an objective reference point it’s all relative—morality, purpose, meaning and all the rest. And the only viable candidate we have for that reference point is a Creator God.”

Professor Harris sat back down in his chair and let out a big sigh. The class fell silent. After a moment John spoke up pensively.

“So…are we saying I can copy my neighbor’s answer to question twenty?”

The entire classroom broke out in laughter. Just as the teacher opened his mouth to reply the timer on his desk went off, indicating that both the quiz and the class period was now over.

Professor Harris smiled and waved his arm toward the door. “Go on! Get outta here, everyone. Have a great weekend! We’ll retry this quiz next week.”

← Back to Part 3