Ethical Pain

It never fails to amaze me that people deny objective morality.  Morality isn’t mere opinion.  Right now, somewhere in this world, there is someone who is doing something that, regardless of his or her personal opinion (or the opinion of the society in which he lives), is just plain wrong.

For example, in certain Islamic traditions, it is a sin for the woman to enjoy sex.  So, her genitals are mutilated in a way that will preclude any sort of enjoyment from sex.  That society, even its women, approve of this practice and celebrate it.  But it’s just objectively wrong, even though it is allowed to proceed even with the blessing of those affected the most adversely by it.

CAA member Sam Harper has a really interesting way of knowing that we have objective moral values.  It borders on the fallacy of appeal to motive, so I’m not presenting it as an argument.  It’s some really good food for thought.  Sam writes:

A divorced girl once confessed to me that she had cheated on her husband with his best friend just to get revenge. Then she tried to justify herself by saying, “After what he did to me, I didn’t feel married.” Of course marriage is not a feeling, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and even the most absurd excuse will do if it’s all you’ve got to avoid admitting that you’ve done something so wrong.

Interesting.  People do go to great lengths to justify incorrect behavior.  In my years as a manager, I’ve seen people rationalize the most bizarre behavior.  Everyone is the exception to the rule.  Like the divorced girl, we find reasons (however thin) to commit immoral acts because we know they’re wrong and it hurts us to do them.

Yet, the pull to commit them is stronger than the potential consequences.  So what is a person to do?  Sam responds:

There’s another way to avoid ethical pain that few people seem to ever try. Instead of getting rid of the rules or looking for loopholes to let yourself off the hook, why not just obey the moral laws? Why not just do right and avoid wrong? Why don’t more people try this?

Reminds me of the old adage “Christianity is not tried and found wanting.  It is found difficult and left untried.”  When I was growing up and going to Catholic school, I used to hate the song “Amazing Grace” mainly because I knew I wasn’t a wretch.  Except that I was:

Why is being moral so hard? It’s because of the kind of people we are. It’s easy for somebody with nothing but good intentions, good motives, and good dispositions to be good. Being moral is almost impossible for us, though, because that’s not the kind of people we are. We do bad things because we have bad intentions, motives, and dispositions. Christianity is unpopular, because Christianity is realistic about this. Embracing the Christian worldview requires people to admit things they don’t want to admit.

That’s what was so amazing about God’s grace in the first place!  It took me much of my life to realize that I was a wretch and that I hurt a lot of people.  When I finally admitted that to myself, I was ready for Christianity.  Most people don’t want to go there.  As Sam closes:

The reason Christianity is so hard for people to except is because before you can accept it, you have to first drop all the excuses and admit that you really have violated the moral law. You really have done wrong. There are no loopholes to let you off the hook. You’re guilty. Once you admit your guilt, you are left to face yourself in all your moral failure. That’s not easy.

No it’s not.  But when our sinful nature is confronted and we no longer make excuses for ourselves, this is the most freedom anyone can experience in life.  This is what it means to know the truth, and the truth makes you free.

About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on July 8, 2011, in Morality, Sin and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great post. I think it’s quite true that moral issues often keep people from faith in Christ. That adage of “found difficult and left untried” is very true.

    • Actually, I agree. More than almost any other objection, I think I get something along the lines of, “Well, God is immoral! He ordered genocides and condones rape and murder. Why would I follow such a heathenistic barbarian?”

  2. Cory Tucholski, you have asserted that objective morality exists, but you have not argued the case that objective morality exists. (perhaps this was not your intention)

    • There are two reasons I never argued that morality is objective. First, I’ve talked about the existence of objective morality so many other times, that I didn’t think it was necessary. So, you’re right to observe that it wasn’t likely my intention to make that argument. It wasn’t; I thought I had established that elsewhere.

      The second reason, is that quite honestly, I’m shocked that I have to argue that objective morality exists at all. But, few people actually seem to subscribe to it anymore, and I really can’t understand why. It seems natural that if an action is wrong now, then it was always wrong.

      The strongest argument for objective morality is the internal knowledge that somewhere, someone is doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, regardless of that person’s opinion or the opinion of the culture in which they live.

      If morality is subjective, then two problems immediately arise. The first problem is the dilemma of the moral reformer. The second problem is passing judgments on other cultures.

      The majority view of atheists is that a society decides morality for itself. I know that not every atheist believes that, but that is the #1 response I get whenever I discuss moral values. Let’s just take a minute to examine each problem I raised in light of the idea that morality is, as Emperor Palpatine told Anakin Skywalker, a [majority] point of view.

      If society’s morals are simply the majority view, this necessarily implies that the minority view is wrong. So, when you see something like slavery in the American South, the few lone wolves that stood against it were wrong by definition. That’s the dilemma of the moral reformer.

      The second problem happens when judgment is passed on a society’s morals. If you, a 21st-century American, said that the ancient Near East culture of the Israelites was barbaric, then by what standard are you judging it? By your own culture? Is that so enlightened? 3000 years from now, a citizen of an advanced civilization will probably look at America 2011 and find us barbaric and uncivilized. “They had to walk or ride these primitive automobile-things. They couldn’t just visit a teleporter.”

      Undoubtedly, moral epistemology has become richer in 2011 than the times of Abraham. Unlike the Canaanites of his day, we don’t sacrifice our first born sons to Molech. Thousands of years ago but closer to home, we don’t practice virgin sacrifice as the Aztecs did. And, I’ll play to the hobby horse of most atheists when I say it, we have eliminated forced slavery in the civilized world.

      But, again, that’s moral epistemology. What about moral ontology? If majority-rules, then sacrificing the first born was fine for the Canaanites, sacrificing a virgin was fine for the Aztecs, and forced slavery was fine for 80% of the world for 90% of human history. Worse, the Holocaust was fine for 1940s Germany. We have no right to judge, none whatsoever.

      At the risk of copying William Lane Craig’s style, let me ask, “Surely, no one actually believes that?”

      Of course no one believes that. Child and virgin sacrifice, forced slavery, and the Holocaust were all wrong despite the opinions of the society that practiced them. And so, objective morality is real.

      But don’t morals change? Nope. What has changed is not the objective morals themselves (moral ontology), but our knowledge and understanding of them (moral epistemology).

      The Bible shows this to us. In the writings of Jeremiah the prophet, we find a prediction (Jer 31:33) that God will place his law in the hearts of his people. This happens after the end of the law (in other words, following Jesus). Paul talks about how the Law, written in former times, is for instruction only (Rom 15:4) and the writer of Hebrews says that the Law and its sacrifices are “mere shadows” of the heavenly things to come (10:1). The Mosaic Law, then, isn’t for us today as it is only a shadow of the objective morality from God.

      That, I hope, is satisfactory to argue the existence of objective morality. Again, I fail to see why I have to. We all know that certain things are just wrong: murder, child sacrifice, rape, forced slavery, and other things too horrible to mention on a family website. And, if they’re wrong now, they were always wrong–even if some society somewhere condoned them.

  3. Thanks for that detailed response – your explanation is very clear.

    Let me see if I can come to an understanding of your position. Is this a fair summary of your arguments:

    1) Genocide (e.g.) is morally wrong (objectively) even though some may assert that it is not morally wrong (objectively). Therefore morality is objective.

    2) if an action is morally wrong (objectively) today, then it was morally wrong (objectively) yesterday, and at all times in the past. and it is also morally wrong (objectively) tomorrow, and at all times in the future. Therefore morality is objective.

    3) If morality is subjective, then, in the eyes of the majority, the majority opinion is morally right (subjectively), and the minority opinion is morally wrong (subjectively). in the eyes of the minorty, the majority opinion is morally wrong (subjectively), and the minority opinion is morally right (subjectively).

    4) If morality is subjective, then foreigners can only say “I think Sati (e.g.) is morally wrong (subjectively)”. Foreigners cannot say: “Sati (e.g.) is morally wrong (objectively)”.

    5) Almost everyone has a conscience. These are all vaguely in agreement. Something is missing here. Therefore morality is objective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: