Is morality absurd?

Belief in a personal God frees us from moral scepticism

I want to put before you two contrasting moral pictures.

A Panorama programme broadcast on British TV in 1994 documented vividly how in India social prejudice against women leads every year to the killing of hundreds of thousands of baby girls at birth. Males outnumber females by 36 million in India, a 4 percent population excess that cannot be explained by a statistical fluctuation. Girls are an economic liability to families since the parents have to produce a `dowry’ to get them married. Interviews with parents in Tamilnadu disclosed that the third or the fourth baby girl would often, at birth, be buried alive in a rubbish dump or refused food till she died.

I was particularly horrified by a lengthy report on a doctor in Rajasthan whose clinic specialises in eliminating female foetuses. With the lastest scanning equipment, the doctor establishes the sex of a child in the womb. If the child is female, more often than not it is aborted, sometimes just weeks before natural childbirth. The child is killed and then shown to the parents to prove she was really a girl, and thus worth to getting rid off.

At the same time I saw a news report on the civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda. Among the accounts of the atrocities and massacres in the capital Kigali, there was also a story of real heroism.

An African religious brother, teacher in a local school, was offered the opportunity to escape to neighbouring Burundi, as much of the population did. But he had heard of a group of families who were trapped in the middle of the town. He decided to go there, in spite of the fact that that part of the town was in the hands of the army’s murder squads. He managed to slip through to the troubled area. When he tried to lead people out, he was stopped by a military search party. They identified him as a leader. He was ferociously beaten and tortured, and then shot.

The Indian doctor would seem to be a murderer. The African brother gave his life to save people. We rate some people in our world as plain criminals, others as heroes and most of us somewhere in between. We live in a moral world. It does matter to us that greed, cruelty, exploitation and cowardice be exposed as such, that honesty, kindness, sacrifice and courage be valued and rewarded.

The main point I shall develop in this chapter is that moral values are ultimately absurd in a God-less materialistic universe.

Should the right of the strongest prevail?

Suppose for a moment that the universe did come about by chance. Suppose that the mere physical forces of nature built up an earth such as ours, and that by purely mechanical evolution life progressed to produce `thinking animals’ such as we are. In such a world our `mind’ would be purely an accident, an afterthought. Good and evil would have no value in themselves. All that would matter is the programming of individuals in such a way that the genes of the species continue.

In such a world, morality would be really absurd. It would be absurd for at least three reasons: individuals would be expected to live up to moral obligations that did not serve their own good. Moral values would be irrelevant to the deep structure of reality. And scepticism about the real use of sacrifice and virtue would rob people of all motivation. I will explain this in detail.

A mother who already has three daughters gives birth to a fourth child. It turns out to be a girl. Is the mother allowed to kill her? Universal human conviction says: no! But we have to allow for extreme circumstances of poverty and cultural differences. The moral consensus today is that killing her is not allowed. Even if it were a custom tolerated by local law – which it is not in India! – , killing a child at birth is recognised as a crime against human life. The child has the right to live, like any other human being.

Now, in a materialistic world the reason for this moral judgment might be just a feeling, a feeling of compassion with no substance. The feeling, moreover, is nothing more than a psychological trick played on us by our genes: it is to the advantage of the species that murder is curbed. For practical reasons society may also impose sanctions, to guard persons from being killed by others. But all this does not constitute a compelling reason, a real inner obligation, for an Indian mother to let her baby daughter live.

In a God-less world in which we are just accidental froth on the ocean of evolution, the individual would be right in always seeking his or her own personal interest. If parents are poor and the fourth baby is a girl, they would be right to take its life, if they can do so without incurring a prosecution. A doctor can then, with impunity, make huge profits on procuring abortions based on gender.

In a God-less world, the sacrifice of one’s life would also be absurd. For what does the individual stand to gain from it? Perhaps he or she will feel good in having helped someone else . . . . But does that not make the hero or heroine a pathetic figure? For in reality they would have paid a high cost for the ridiculously small reward of `a good feeling’ before they died! They themselves, however, and we too, would rate their action as enormously valuable in itself, as doing some real good by saving someone else’s life.


In a God-less world, therefore, morality as we know it would be odd and out of place. The law of the jungle would prevail; and worse. For human beings can be more cruel than animals.

There must be room for higher values

In a totally material world, the blind forces of nature dominate everything. Even human beings are merely the chance outcome of unpredictable evolution. Morality is no more than a surface phenomenon of human culture. Human beings protect each other because it serves the strategy of their genes: it promotes survival of the species. Actions are only `good’ or `evil’ because human culture marks them as such. Morality is then totally accidental to the real physical forces that make up the deep structure of the universe.

But this is totally against our own moral convictions. Human beings consider honesty, kindness, generosity and fairness as the highest achievements of life on earth. Of course, there are cultural differences. But the international convergence underlying the moral code is impressive (see: A.C.MACINTYRE, A Short History of Ethics, New York 1966; E.O.WILSON, Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, Cambridge MA 1975; C.HIBBERT, The Roots of Evil, London 1978.). People reckon that heroic love, as demonstrated by the African brother, stands out as a peak in human existence. They attach the greatest value to such moral deeds; much more than to the nuclear, chemical and biological dynamics that support life.

In a God-less world, human achievements of art, education, science, social care, international integration and so on, are not, as we normally judge, the best of what we have on earth, but rather some accidental outgrowth of only peripheral importance.

Our unspoken human conviction is that our mental and moral successes express something about the deep structure of the universe, that they reveal what its highest values are really about. If they do not, the life we live is absurd. George Mavrodes, who calls a totally materialist world `Russellian’ after Bertrand Russell, draws the conclusion that it would be absurd:

“Any moral demand is superficial in a Russellian world. Something that reaches close to the heart of my own life, perhaps even demanding the sacrifice of that life, is not deep at all in the world in which, on a Russellian view, that life is lived. And that is absurd . . . .

If you share my conviction that it cannot in the end be absurd in that way, then perhaps you will, like myself, be attracted to a religious view of the world. Perhaps you too will say that morality must have some deeper grip upon the world than a Russellian view allows. And, consequently, things like mind and purpose must also be deeper in the real world than they would be in a Russellian world. They must be more original, more controlling. The accidental collocation of atoms cannot be either primeval or final, nor can the grave be an end.”
G.MAVRODES, “Religion and the Queerness of Morality”, in Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment, ed. R.AUDI, Ithaca 1986, pp. 213-226, here p.225.

Life is not absurd

If we lived in a totally materialist world, we would be driven to complete moral scepticism. If more and more people were to adopt the materialist view, the underlying moral obligations would lose their validity in people’s lives. Through education people would begin to understand that their traditional view of morality, as implying real values of good and evil, belongs to the past. Morality would then amount to a combination of two factors: inner norms of behaviour with no more force than being `in good taste’, and external sanctions imposed by society.

But, since real moral obligations would have disappeared, the principal rule of life would be to get as much out of it as we can, even at the expense of other people, provided we can get away with it. Everything would be measured in terms of our own advantage. Society would become utterly hypocritical, for it would punish people for crimes which, in actual fact, would not be wrong as long as they had not been detected.

This, however, would lead to one absurdity after another. It would lead to moral despair, for a thinking person would not know any more what is right or wrong, or how to judge the society of which he or she is a part.

“Such total and unrelenting moral despair is an absurd state.

There may be people influenced by some aspects of existentialism who believe that life is absurd and simply accept it. My reasoning is not intended for those people. It is intended for those people who believe that if life is truly absurd, it ought not to be lived. Since it ought to be lived, it must not be absurd.”
L.ZAGZEBSKI, “Does Ethics need God?”, Faith and Philosophy 4 (1987) pp. 294-303, here p. 300.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

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