I’d like an argument, please

As moral debates of all kinds rage in our community, Christians feel the need to speak out. The trouble is, whenever we make strong moral statements, we end up sounding like were defending morality rather than preaching the gospel. How do we argue for Christian morality in a post-Christian society?

Censorship and books in schools, pornography and the classification of videos, conservation, homosexual rights, abortion, immigration. What do these issues have in common? They are all certainly under discussion in our community; and they’re all emotive and controversial. But most significantly, they all involve moral judgements of one kind or another.

This may seem to be stating the obvious. For Christians, however, this moral climate should be a matter of tremendous interest and enthusiasm. As people evaluate the issues of life, and express their opinions as moral statements, a point of contact is established between Christians and non-Christians. Different world-views rub shoulders. This is a ripe opportunity for evangelism.

Before we look at how the non-Christians make their judgements and how we might interact with them, we should consider the basis upon which Christianity arrives at moral values.


The Christian can argue for the morality (or otherwise) of any particular act on three levels.

1. God’s Word

Ultimately, God is the source of all morality. He is the one who decides what is right and good and true, and he does so not arbitrarily, but according to his character. His word alone is the final Source of authority and truth (see Briefing #3, Four Ways To Live).

2. Intuition

Despite the effects of the fall, there remains a residual moral intuition to which the Christian can appeal. The character of God

is woven into the fabric of creation. He created it to be good and to express his existence and power, and to some limited extent men can know what God requires just from the nature of creation. The pagan idolaters of Romans 1 knew that their actions deserved death.

3. Utility

God’s way is best because it works. Again, this springs from God’s creation of the world. Because of his power and knowledge, his way of doing things will always functionally be best. Godliness, so Paul tells us, has value for this life as well as for the life to come. Lying, cheating, greed, jealousy—these are all counter-productive. Accordingly, honesty, fair-dealing, generosity and love make for harmony and happiness both individually and within society.

On some of these levels, on some occasions, Christians and non-Christians will find themselves in agreement. On the basis of utility, for instance, both Christians and non-Christians might conclude that stealing is bad because of its destructive effect on society.

We can also agree on the level of intuition. Most non-Christians would say that stealing is wrong without hesitation intuitively. They wouldn’t need to ponder its negative consequences for society. They would have a sense of it being wrong. This is the case in a number of areas, most notably in appeals to natural justice or equity or fairness—these are right because…well because they just are.

All the same, even in these areas there is frequent disagreement. It is very hard to prove the utility of a particular course of action—there are an endless number of variables and shades of grey. Even in seemingly clear-cut areas like stealing, there can be differences of opinion. Some might argue that the problem lies in the whole concept of private ownership: “If all property was communal, laws against stealing would be unnecessary. The very concept of stealing would disappear.”

On the level of intuition, the arguments can become even more tangled. I may think that cigarette advertising is immoral, but you may think that censorship is even more immoral. It is hard to come to a satisfactory resolution purely on the basis of intuition.

And of course, when the first of our levels is introduced, all hell breaks loose. Appealing to the truth of God’s word cuts little ice with the thoughtful non-Christian. While many might acknowledge moral teachings like the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, these rarely impinge on the non-Christian decision-making process. They might give some content to their intuitions, but that is about all.

The Non-Christian System

For most non-Christians, thinking through the basis of their moral system is hardly a regular past-time. Over a period of time they evolve a series of likes and dislikes and clothe these in moral language. By putting things in moral terms, they give their likes and dislikes far greater weight and force than they otherwise would have enjoyed. “I don’t like what you’re doing to this man”

is not nearly as powerful and irrefutable as “This is a denial of natural justice!”. What is more, using these kind of moral statements excuses them from giving a reasoned defence of their position. “That sort of thing is indefensible” or “That’s immoral” are statements which require no rational basis—by taking the higher moral ground they are safe from having to defend themselves.

This approach has been used in many areas of controversy, both past and present: the war in Vietnam, the invasion of East Timor, apartheid, racism, immigration, nuclear disarmament, uranium mining, industrial disputes, and so on. In the midst of intellectual argument on these subjects, up pops an appeal to a higher moral authority. And because of what we have already seen about intuition, this appeal has great power. People know that there is a right and wrong, and become fiercely committed to upholding what they see as being right. If these moral viewpoints can be buttressed by utilitarian arguments, so much the better.

However, when the non-Christian seeks to justify his position rationally, it all falls apart. If there is no transcendent God there is no higher moral authority; there is no-one who can give an abiding statement of values for our world. If the cosmos was not created by God—if it is no more than a cataclysmic accident—then there is no meaning, value or purpose written into our world.

Without God, there are no grounds for intuition. In a purely material universe, our sense of right and wrong is nothing more than an expression of our social conditioning. The only argument left is utility, and that is not only difficult to prove before the event, but ultimately impossible to determine even after the event. Upon what basis can we say that a certain act is “for the best” if there is no standard by which we can judge what is “best”.

Thus, the non-Christian invariably falls into what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy—the argument from “is” to “ought”. They constantly move from the existence of a set of circumstances to what we ought to do about them, without any logical connection. “There is a green tree. You ought to…” What? Climb it? Fertilise it? Build a bridge out of it? That the tree is simply there implies nothing about what we ought to do. In a totally material universe, where there is no God, this is the logical end of all attempts at morality.

The non-Christian, despite this, is committed to various moral values and will uphold them vigorously. There is great evangelistic opportunity in pointing out the inconsistency of this position, but before we think about how to do this, let’s look at how not to argue morality with non-Christians.

How Not to Argue

When Christians disagree with non-Christians about morality they almost always approach the discussion badly. We tend to argue about the content of morality, rather than its basis; about the symptom rather than the disease. Consider the following situation.

You’re chatting with your workmates over morning tea when one of them picks up on an article in the paper on the new x-rated video laws. The consensus around the table seems to be that the occasional risque movie doesn’t do you any harm and that they should be freely available for those who want to watch them. You feel compelled to fly the flag and so you make some comment about pornography being immoral and degenerate. Your non-Christian mates go for the jugular, asking you to justify such a wowserish, outmoded opinion. Fighting a rear-guard action, you appeal to utility, pointing to the high incidence of rape and sexual abuse in our community. The non-Christian’s come back with arguments about releasing your frustrations and reduced sex crimes in Denmark and you trade statistical blows for a while. It becomes apparent that the long-term social consequences are impossible to determine and the argument bogs down.

You change tack and appeal to intuition: “Surely it is immoral to use people in this way, to debase women and distort sexuality.” Some of your friends secretly agree with you but won’t admit it in open discussion. Their own desire for greater sexual ‘freedom’ leads them to push you about the basis of your statement. You can’t backup your intuition without appealing to God and so your statement of “This is wrong” turns into “I don’t like it”. They then argue that they do like it and that they’re sick of your narrow-minded, legalistic, sexually hung-up attitudes.

In a last ditch attempt, you appeal to what God says in the Bible, but since they either don’t believe in him or have never read the Bible, they refuse to listen.

The mistake in this discussion was to focus on the content of morality rather than its basis. Whenever we do this we end up on the defensive and make little progress. We find ourselves in fundamental disagreement with the non-Christian about morality and can find no way to effectively argue the point.

There is a better way.

Strategies for Good Argument

Christians need to learn to go on the offensive. The most effective and helpful strategy is not to argue about the content of morality, but to point out that the non-Christian has no basis for morality at all. We need to learn the value of the well-placed question: Why do you think that? What’s your basis for saying that? How do you know? Asking a question is easy—it requires no great intellect—but it is very powerful in pinpointing the weakness of the non-Christian alternative.

Thus, in moral argument, we should try to ask questions about the basis of morality. In the hypothetical discussion above, perhaps you should have started by saying: “That’s interesting. You think that pornography isn’t such a bad thing. What reasons

have you got for saying that?” You don’t want to be drawn into approving of pornography (or of censorship for that matter), but by asking your friends to give a reasoned defence of their position the focus immediately shifts on to the illogical basis of their view. Now, as they appeal to utility, it is your turn to call into question the long-term effects of pornography. How can they possibly know?

If they insist that free access to pornography will actually reduce sex crimes, you can push it one step further: “What makes you think that reducing sex crimes is a good thing?” At this point you need to muster your courage, for you know in your bones that sex crimes are appalling. However, in the context of the argument, you are merely taking your opponent’s view to its logical conclusion in order to expose its weakness and ultimate failure. He also knows in his bones that sex crimes are appalling, but he is now put in the position of having to defend his intuitive morality.

Of course, there is no defence for intuition if God has not created the world, and so your friend is left to flounder with arguments like: “Where would the world be…” and “It’s self-evident that everybody should be treated fairly” and “Would you like to be treated like that?”. These are the arguments of desperation. Morality has been reduced to pragmatism and personal opinion. You can conclude that his version of morality seems little more than: “What I like is good and what I don’t like is bad.”

While logically, a non-Christian might be pushed to accept the view that morality (in his system) doesn’t exist, intuitively he finds this very hard to accept. This is the point at which to explain the naturalistic fallacy.

The non-Christian, in our society, is living off the Christian capital of another generation. He has inherited the ideas of good and bad, truth and falsehood, justice and oppression, from 2000 years of Christian thought and teaching. He has imbibed God’s values without knowing it. We need to point out to him that having severed his ties with God he has no right to retain the Christian moral concepts. If God is dead, and this world a meaningless joke, then we are free to do as we wish, without moral restriction. If this creates a nightmare world so be it; this is the consequence of rejecting God. If the non-Christian has moral qualms about the idea of his mother becoming a prostitute, he is simply demonstrating the total inconsistency of his position, or else the stupidity and unliveability of his godless system of thought.

Our aim in this is to shine a bright light into the dark corners in which our non-Christian friends hide. By exposing the foolishness of the alternative, we can bring them face-to-face with God in the gospel message. We can never prove the truth of the gospel by this kind of argument—repentance and faith are spiritual matters that come from hearing the word of God. However, by showing the unreasonableness of the non-Christian system, we can commend to them how reasonable and liberating is God’s system. This is fertile ground for the seed of the gospel.

And one final piece of food for thought: What bearing does all this have on the Festival of Light?

Comments are closed.