Along with my regular posts at SeanMcDowell.org, I am now featuring some of my former students in the Biola Apologetics Program. This post is by my friend Timothy Fox, who helped me with both the Awana Advocates curriculum and the updated and revised Evidence that Demands a Verdict. He also blogs at Free Thinking Ministries and you can follow him on Twitter at @TimothyDFox. Enjoy!
Can Empathy Ground Morality? No!
By Timothy Fox
One of the most powerful arguments for the existence of God is the moral argument. Basically, an objective moral law requires a Moral Lawgiver. But many skeptics still aren’t convinced. They claim that they don’t need God or some holy book to tell them how to live; they have empathy.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” In short, it is feeling what others feel. Someone who endorses empathy-based morality will say that good is whatever makes others feel happy and evil is whatever makes people feel pain. This sounds a lot like the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you (Matt. 7:12). It’s a great way to determine how we should treat others. But to use empathy as the basis of morality has problems.
First, by the above definition, empathy-based morality is not objective; it is blatantly subjective, since it is “the psychological identification” of someone else’s experience. It is based on my feelings about another’s situation. Objective morality means that morality is real and binding regardless of how anyone thinks or feels. In this, empathy fails as the foundation of morality.
Second, what obligation do I have to act a certain way based on my empathetic feelings? If I feel bad seeing a hungry child suffer during a TV commercial, I could decide to volunteer at my local soup kitchen or I could just change the channel. Those are two different responses to my empathy and to say which is right requires a moral judgment. Therefore, empathy isn’t the basis of right and wrong.
Furthermore, why should I care about a starving stranger, so long as my belly is full? And instead of following my empathy, why not act on rage, aggression, or sexual desire? Again, we must choose which of these feelings to follow by appealing to some moral standard.
Knowing vs. Being
Third, empathy does not make things right or wrong; it is merely a tool to help discover morality. Philosophically, this is the difference between knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology). For example, I know grass is green because I see that it is green. My sight is the tool to help me discover the color of grass. But I can only see - and know - that grass is green because grass has the property of being green. Grass would still be green even if I were colorblind or could not see at all.
The same applies to morality. If I say “Murder is wrong,” I don’t mean that I have the psychological identification that murder is wrong. No, murder has the property of being morally wrong the same way grass has the property of being green. Stating that murder is good is just as wrong as claiming that 2+2=5. Moral facts are true regardless of my opinion or whether or not my moral faculties are working properly.
Empathy is one way of knowing right and wrong. But it does not determine the rightness or wrongness of an action. We have deep moral intuitions that certain actions are right and wrong, but these intuitions are just the way that we know it. I could be a conscious-less psychopath with no conception of morality, but morality would still be real and objective.
A Better Explanation
So if morality is just as real as the physical world, how do we make sense of it? That is where the moral argument comes in. An objective moral law requires a Moral Lawgiver. God has provided ways for us to know this moral law: by sealing it on our hearts (Rom. 2:14-15), His Word, and, of course, empathy. But morality itself is grounded in a holy, morally-perfect God. Good is whatever aligns with God’s nature and commands and evil is whatever goes against it.
Without God, we would be lost in a sea of moral subjectivity, where morality is just a trend, fashion, or evolutionary survival instinct. But we all know better than that. Morality is just as real as anything else in the world, and the best explanation of this is an objective moral law founded upon a good and holy God.