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A couple of years ago in a town in central England, a tragedy happened that could have been the archetypal “evil stepmother” fable, but this was no fabrication. A six-year-old boy was murdered by his stepmother, with help from his father. He was tortured by being fed salt-laced meals and being denied food and water, and his death was from a traumatic brain injury. The maternal grandmother said of the boy’s guardians: “I think they are cold, calculating, systematic torturers of a defenseless little boy. They’re wicked, evil.”

Christian apologist Jim Wallace pointed to this murder to ask how we know what “evil” is. He imagined an objective component of evil, and he sees morality as grounded outside humans. Humans aren’t necessary for objective moral truths to be in force.

(The story with the surprise conclusion is story #2, but I’ll use this brief look at the first story to make clear Wallace’s position.)

This is the standard apologist’s playbook: insist on objective morality and take it as a given or, at most, argue for it with nothing more convincing than, “I’m sure we all agree that X is wrong.”

I see zero evidence for such an objective morality. Look up the word “evil” in Merriam-Webster and the first definition is “morally reprehensible.” There’s no objective anything here, no hint of a Big Book of Morals in God’s library that we can consult. This might surprise Jim Wallace the retired police detective, who seems to have trouble understanding how morals work in society—from how laws are made in a legislature to how they’re interpreted by the courts. Where do we find this morality that’s grounded outside humans? Where in the legislative or judicial process is any appeal to objective morality? That we share a moral sense is nicely explained by all of us being the same species and our species having been shaped by evolution.

Story #2: Does Google uphold its “Do no evil” motto? Should it?

So far, this is the standard apologist’s playbook: insist on objective morality and take it as a given or, at most, argue for it with nothing more convincing than, “I’m sure we all agree that X is wrong.” But with this second story, Wallace makes clear the weakness of his position.

This story, which broke at about the same time as that of the death of the boy, is Google being sued by several ex-employees for violating its “Don’t be evil” motto. Those employees had protested Google selling software to aid the work of U.S. immigration authorities, arguing that Google’s policies call for “acting honorably and treating each other with respect.” They claim that “Don’t be evil” wasn’t a throwaway line and that Google’s own employee contract made it binding on their work as employees.

Note the difference between these two stories. A six-year-old is tortured and then murdered. We bystanders conclude in an instant that evil was done. But the Google story is different. The court will decide after a long, boring trial, and it’s not obvious which side will prevail—perhaps even which side we want to prevail. No part of this trial will appeal to objective morality.

The podcast cohost outlined his approach to this case:

We need to look at something outside the employees and outside Google, some other, transcendent moral law. We need to look to that so we can compare the opinions of the people involved to the ultimate authority.  (@20:12)

The apologist demands to know how we ordinary humans can resolve moral problems. Answer: by God grounding objective moral truth. Look at the murder case—we all just know that evil was done, and that’s thanks to God.

Objective morality: put up or shut up

But with this claim about the Google case and ultimate authority, the Christian apologist’s fig leaf is torn away, and the flabby argument is made plain. If they have the secret recipe for resolving moral cases, they can demonstrate that by resolving the Google case! The resolution is not at all obvious, which makes it the perfect proving ground. That they don’t show how to judge the case is obviously because they can’t.

Compare these two cases. If there is an ultimate authority that shows us right from wrong, we don’t need it in the murder case. The moral judgment there is easy. But the Google case is messy, and an argument could be made for either side. This is precisely the opportunity to roll out that “ultimate authority.”

This reminds me of a carpenter’s workbench. Wallace could’ve laid out and explained the moral axioms needed for the task, like a neat row of carpenter’s tools. He’d show them to be objectively true and then apply them to the Google case to demonstrate how God as the ultimate authority can be reliably applied to thorny, real-world problems. But he doesn’t. He ends his episode making clear that he has no such technique. I’m sure he doesn’t even realize that we followed him to the brink and then watched him walk away, unable to make the demonstration on which his own examples insisted.

He’s preaching to the choir, and they let him get away with this, but we skeptics can see behind the curtain. The emptiness of apologists’ claims for objective morality is plainer than ever.

You don’t need religion to have morals.
If you can’t determine right from wrong
then you lack empathy, not religion.
— seen on the internet

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...