Now, where does the authority of the absolute moral principle come from? Notice that I am not asking where the conviction itself comes from, as if this were a causal argument. That is not the point—at least not yet. The question concerns the authority of that principle: why should we give to it the enormous respect that indeed we do give to it? Ultimately, only two kinds of answers are possible: the source of absolute moral authority is either personal or impersonal. Consider first the latter possibility.183 That would mean that there is some impersonal structure or law in the universe that sets forth ethical precepts and rightly demands allegiance to them. But what kind of impersonal being could possibly do that? Certainly if the laws of the universe reduced to chance, nothing of ethical significance could emerge from it. What of ethical significance can random collisions of subatomic particles?184 What loyalty do we owe to pure chance? Of course, most antisupernaturalists find ethical value not in pure chance, but in some sort of impersonal structure in the universe. Perhaps it is conceived on the model of physical law: just as what goes up “must” come down, so in the moral sphere one “must” love one’s neighbor. But as I indicated earlier in a note, there are significant differences between physical and moral laws. And the main question here is: How can an impersonal structure create obligation?
(Again, we have a major is-ought problem.) Or: On what basis does an impersonal structure demand loyalty or obedience? One thinks of the fatalism of ancient Greek religion, in which, essentially, fate calls the tune for history. When the tragic hero learns of his fate, he might fight it, but in time he will be crushed by that all-controlling destiny. Here, impersonal fate is stronger than anything else. It cannot be resisted. But does that fact imply that we ought to submit to it? Is one nobler if he submits or if he fights? Some Greek thinkers, at least, seemed to think that one who fights fate is noble, even if fate eventually crushes him. Is that not also our own instinct? The fact is that an impersonal principle such as fate is insufficient to create an ought, to rightly demand loyalty and obedience.
Where, then, does the ought come from? What is there that is capable of imposing an absolute obligation on human beings? For the answer, we must leave the realm of impersonal principles and turn to the realm of persons. Obligations and loyalties arise in the context of interpersonal relationships. In terms of Reformed theology, we may put it this way: obligations, loyalties, and therefore morality are covenantal in character. When I receive a bill from a man who has repaired my roof, I feel an obligation to pay it. It is not just that that person (plus the police!) is, like the Greek fate, strong enough to crush me. In the personal arena, there is always another factor: I recognize in the roof repairman a person like myself. And I have the sense about him that he deserves to be paid. Or, to put it differently: when we agreed that he would fix my roof, I promised to pay him. That promise created an obligation, and I would have little respect for myself if I did not keep that promise. We learn morality, typically, in the family—another deeply personal, covenantal environment. Parents rightly demand the obedience of their children, not only because parents are bigger and can spank, but also because they presumably have greater wisdom and experience, greater compassion and goodness, and deep responsibility and love for their children.
Beyond all that, they bear authority simply because they are parents, even when, so far as we can tell, they do not deserve that authority. Other adults might be wiser and more compassionate than one’s parents, but the word of the parent still counts for more—unless it contravenes a still higher moral authority. Our obligations to repairmen and even to parents are not absolute. If the repairman’s bill is ten times his estimate, a higher moral arbiter, the court, might have to be involved. If parents tell a son to murder somebody, it is best that he resort to higher moral authorities, perhaps to his absolute or ultimate moral authority. But where does that authority come from?
Dr. John M. Frame. Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (Kindle Locations 2728-2764). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition
This has been sufficient for the moment and has helped us understand some problems for impersonalistic accounts of ethics. I think more needs to be said about norms and obligations. We must discuss this question “What are their attributes?” The first issue we will note is that they are objective. We agree that subjectivism is as it always is self-refuting. We must also accept the indispensable feature that morality must have in order to be objective. It must be normative. That means it commands, directs, demands, and favors us to do certain activities. This means that these moral commands are in fact objective. These moral commands are themselves commands of reason. They require design and intent. Suppose for the moment we discovered a machine that was not working. If we were to study it and find the issue and it began to work. If you would notice the implicit assumption in our reasoning was the notion that the machine was meant to do any activity. To say something ought to be doing something implies that it was meant, intended, designed to do such an action. That means when we wish to say a man was suppose to act a certain way implies he was meant to act a certain way. We seem to be on the way of understanding something about these demands. They are commands of reasons, they are commands that direct us to act certain ways, this source that commands us must be personal, we must be designed to act in accordance with this beings moral prescriptions. This seems to imply that behind moral commands are moral commanders. The problem is these commanders simply can’t be human agents. Human agents aren’t absolute. The result would be that we could not preserve the objectivity of ethics. The other option is that an absolute personal rational mind commands us.
What kind of a mind would it have to be? It would have to have a few properties. It must be omniscient. If it wasn’t then it could be mistaken about what our obligations, command, and duties are and must be. It must be omnibenevolent. If it wasn’t, then how could we trust it to be the absolute standard of ethics. It must be unchanging. If it were to change, then our duties and commands are changeable on the whim of this being. This being in virtue of these attributes must be a se. He is not dependant on anything that exists. It seems like this being must also be knowable and if we are to know our obligations then he has revealed himself.