The Good Wife on the “problem” of our moral intuition

May 20, 2014

A recent episode of my favorite TV show, The Good Wife, included a couple of scenes that highlight a potential problem with atheism: If there is no God, there is no objective basis for saying something is right or wrong, or good or bad. Is this a problem? Maybe not for some people, but for most—including even professed atheist Alicia Florrick, Julianna Margulies’s character—it is, as you can see in the following scenes. (The first scene also touches on materialism and the illusion free will.)

Tim Keller writes about this problem in his most recent book:

It is inarguable that human beings have moral feelings. A moral feeling means I feel some behavior is right and some behavior wrong and even repulsive. Now, if there is no God, where do such strong moral instincts and feeling come from? Today many would say our moral sense comes from evolution. Our feelings about right and wrong are thought to be genetically hardwired into us because they helped our ancestors survive. While that explanation may account for moral feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation. What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those things are right, but you feel they are wrong? Why should your moral feelings take precedence over theirs? Where do you get a standard by which your moral feelings and sense are judged as true and others as false? On what basis do you say to someone, “What you have done is evil,” if their feelings differ from yours?

We call this a conundrum because the very basis for disbelief in God—a certainty about evil and the moral obligation not to commit it—dissolves if there truly is no God. The ground on which you make your objection vanishes under your feet. So not only does the argument against God from evil not succeed, but it actually has a “boomerang effect” on the users. Because it show you that you are assuming something that can’t exist unless God does. And so, in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.[1]

In this recent interview from the New York Times, philosopher Philip Kitcher makes the case for what he calls “soft atheism,” one which recognizes the worthiness of religion insofar as it promotes the humanist values he champions. There’s much to argue about in the piece, but let me focus on these words:

In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.

Let’s be clear: his “thoroughly secular perspective” can’t do everything that religion can do, refined or otherwise. Because it can’t explain our strong intuition that good and evil are things that actually exist. Only God can do that.

Of course, wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. But let’s concede that we all want it to be true—at least the non-sociopaths among us. We want our incredibly strong intuitions about right and wrong to be based on something more substantial than our personal feelings, proclivities, or tastes. Why? A philosophically materialistic answer can’t scratch that itch.

David Bentley Hart deals with the same question in relation to philosopher Joel Marks.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 85.

11 Responses to “The Good Wife on the “problem” of our moral intuition”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good post. C.S. Lewis made the same argument against atheism, though I can’t recall presently in which book(s).

    • brentwhite Says:

      Mere Christianity. He said that atheists who believe there’s no objective right or wrong can’t help but behave as if they believe it. They’ll cry, “That’s not fair,” whenever someone wrongs them. Fair? What does “fairness” matter?


  2. We have an understanding of morality by analysing the consequences of certain actions. If a God was to allow rape, would that therefore make it moral? No. Because analysis of the victims post-attack behaviour would show stress and anxiety.
    Dawkins put this beautifully to a man during a discussion.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      But why would it be bad that there was stress and anxiety? Without an objective standard of right and wrong, there would still be no basis for morality. What stress and anxiety go to show is simply that God was right in prohibiting rape. God, because of his good nature, would never define as “right” behavior something with bad results. But “bad results” is only “wrong” because of God. There is no alternative basis to argue for “rightness” or “wrongness” of various conduct, simply due to “effects.”


      • If Jesus committed a murder of someone close to you, (Luke 19.27) because they did not want Jesus as their ruler, would this be justified morally because it is Jesus? Would the suffering be an invalid reason to not carry out that murder, because the Lords morals are perfect and absolute?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        religionerased, I totally don’t follow your question. Are you asking me to assume that Jesus would commit murder, so as to say whether I would agree with it if he did? Your assumption is invalid, so the question makes no sense.

        However, if you are actually trying to ask about the eternal punishment of the damned in hell for their rejection of Jesus’ sacrifice in their place, then yes, such a punishment is morally correct because it is consistent with the good character of God. God made a tremendous sacrifice for everyone (Christ’s death on the cross) to redeem them from the death penalty for sin and rebellion against God. If any flaunt that sacrifice and persist in sin and rebellion, then it is only morally right that they be punished for doing so.

        Does that get at answering your underlying question?


      • Apologies, instead of Jesus murdering, I meant ordering the killing- “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.” If one of those people killed were close to you would you condone it? I’m not even going to bother commenting on the bottom half of your reply.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Actually, the bottom half of my reply IS relevant to your question as you have rephrased it, because the passage you cite is parabolic of the Final Judgment and the enemies of God being sent to Hell.

        Now, you once again “assume facts not in evidence,” to use legal jargon, in your question because you assume anyone “close to me” would be in the category of people you are talking about. But, I don’t mind “theorizing” to give you a response. Supposing someone I am “close to” is going to be sent to Hell–how would I feel about that? The answer is not the easiest, but I can say that in the long run any enemy of God is an enemy of mine (as King David essentially said in one of the Psalms). Initially, I would show love towards all (just as God does), but when a person ultimately rejects God’s generous love offer and maintains himself as an enemy of God right to the end, then “all bets are off,” and that enemy of God deserves to be eternally separated from God and those who do love him. So, ultimately I choose God over man, any man.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I wish Dawkins would bother to learn a little bit about Christian theology before he talks as if he knows something about it. Nearly everything he says about the Bible and Christianity is simply wrong. And he’s wrong on history.

      Nevertheless, even worse, he evades the question that was asked. For our purposes in this post only, it hardly matters whether we “agree” on what is right or wrong. It is more important to have a right or wrong on which to agree or disagree. He seems to fail to grasp the question. So he likes modern Western secular values. What is his rational basis for doing so? How does he prove in any scientific way that these values are best? He doesn’t. And that’s the point.


      • Do you feel values in the western world are not superior to others? If you could choose a nation with the best values, or system for us to live by, which would it be? Just curious.

      • brentwhite Says:

        To a philosophical materialist, words like “best” and “superior” are meaningless except insofar as they express one’s personal tastes, shaped as they are by blind forces. But, yes, I’d rather live here than anywhere else. Where Dawkins is wrong is in associating these values with secularism. That’s pure propaganda. Modern science emerges not as a reaction against Christianity but in continuity with a Christian philosophical milieu. Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Descartes… Devoted Christians one and all.


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