Have you ever noticed that the most important things in life are the hardest to talk about?
We can become incredibly emotional over the topics that are close to our hearts because these topics often touch on the core of who we are.
Good and evil is one such topic that arguably is the most personal topic of all. What we say is “good” or “evil” has an enormous impact on how we see ourselves and those around us. Yet many of us haven’t put too much thought into this crucial topic. We may think good and evil is “obvious” to everyone around us.
Yet the widespread division in our communities regarding hot topics such as gay rights, transgenderism, abortion, refugee treatment, mandatory vaccinations and a host of other issues prove that what we think is “good” and “evil” may not be so obvious after all.
But How Do You Know What is Right and Wrong?
How can we know what is right and wrong in the first place? Humans have been passionately discussing this question for a long time and the answers generally fall into one of two boxes. Your answer to how you can recognise good and evil ultimately falls into which “moral box” you unconsciously sign off on in your day to day living…Moral Objectivism or Moral Subjectivism.
So which are you? Do you believe humans ultimately discover the standard what is good and what is evil (Moral Objectivism) or do you believe humans ultimately invent the standard of what is good and evil (Moral Subjectivism)?
THE MORAL OBJECTIVIST
The Moral Objectivist heartily agrees with the saying “Right is Right, even if no one is doing it. Wrong is Wrong even if everyone is doing it”. You believe that right and wrong exist separately from the ever-shifting sands of human opinion. If society voted in a rule that said persecuting minorities was ok, you would fight against it, because ultimately right and wrong isn’t a matter of democracy..its a matter of fact. Just as a society can’t “vote out” the fact of gravity, our society can’t “vote out” the fact that persecuting minorities is always wrong.
If you believe that moral rights and wrongs are a matter of fact (not human opinion) then you may choose justify this idea by appealing to a religious basis.
Christians believe that the notions of good and evil are discovered through learning about the character of God. Contrary to popular belief, “good” is not a standard that exists outside of God which even He must follow. Rather, God is good. God can only do good. He is the dictionary definition of good. If you were to open a dictionary and find the entry for “good”, God’s picture would be next to it.
Since God’s very nature is good it is impossible for him to choose or to commit evil (James 1:13). His character ensures that He always does what is good (Deut 32:4). The truth about who God is and what He has commanded us to do is found in the Bible.
It is therefore on a Biblical basis that a consistent moral framework for both society and an individual may be built. This moral basis is founded upon the heart and character of an all-good and all-knowing God who both designed human beings and desires their maximum flourishing. He wants us to flourish in our relationship with Him, with each other and with the created universe around us. He has expressed His moral code to us in light of this goal.
Sadly, there are many cases where Christians have acted hypocritically and have significantly hurt others in the process. This is a tragedy..especially considering the damage that hypocritical Christians and Christian institutions have inflicted over the centuries. We must admit that Christians have indeed acted un Christ-like. However, we must also remember that this does not in any way undermine the trustworthiness of the Jesus they claim to follow.
By way of analogy, John Dickson has pointed out that an orchestra (or an individual musician) may accidentally or inadvertently mangle a beautiful symphony. Yet this does not mean that the symphony is in and of itself is any less of a masterpiece or any less beautiful. It does not mean that the orchestra shouldn’t keep trying to play the symphony.
Even if a corrupt regime hi-jacks the song and uses it for their own propaganda (think the “God with Us” travesty of Nazi Germany), the song is in and of itself beautiful and good, even when people try to weaponise it.
The same is true of the Christian religion.
But what if you’re not a Christian? How do you discover what is right and wrong? Well you could appeal to a non-religious form of reasoning or scientific method and claim that we discover what is right/wrong in the same way we’ve discovered other facts about the natural world.
However, there are problems with believing that right and wrong are simple facts “out there” that are accessible to human reason and scientific exploration. What science experiment could you do to show that what Hitler did was wrong? How could you demonstrate in a laboratory that caring for vulnerable children is the right thing to do? Can you provide humanity with 1Kg bag of goodness or even a 1kg bag of evil?
This demonstrates a serious problem. Moral “facts” aren’t as clearly seen in nature as non-religious moral objectivist would like.
Judgements regarding good and evil aren’t physical “things” to be weighed and measured. Judgements are by their nature the product of a Mind. In fact, if you don’t believe in a Divine Mind, how can you discover Mind-dependent judgements such as what is good and evil in nature that allegedly exists apart from human opinion? Where is the non-human Mind that creates and sustains the judgements found in nature regarding what is good and what is evil if you don’t believe in a Divine Mind?
There are even more problems with believing morality exists “out there” apart from God. If there is no God, how is there moral obligation? The famous philosopher Neitzsche rightly pointed out that if we are all just made of the same stuff as dust and rocks…and there is no Divine Law-Giver, then there is no “shoulds/should nots” that bind highly evolved bacteria. Moral guidelines have no power over descendants of fish.
Now at this point the final retreat for a secular moral objectivist could be to loudly claim that “Everyone knows about right and wrong, so I don’t need to prove that rape is always wrong/torturing puppies for fun is evil/we should always look after our children etc”.
This last stand needs an urgent date with a history book. Simply put, there are few moral stances that are universally agreed upon at all times in all places by all societies. For example, the idea that all people deserve equal treatment, that everyone should be free to “be themselves” or the concept of animal rights resonate powerfully with 21st century Westerners and may seem quite obvious. These beliefs form an important part of our (present) moral consciousness. However, these ideas are certainly not seen as “self-evident” by many non-Western cultures. These “universal” ethical ideas are either absent at best or seen as relics of ideological colonialism at worst. Thus the last stand of moral objectivism is shown to be both naive and ultimately futile.
The fatal flaws in non-religious moral objectivism have lead many to abandon it. Enter Moral subjectivism. This view is the new kid on the block and it has been making quite a scene over the last couple of decades. It has, for the most part, replaced Moral objectivism in the hearts and minds of the West. It is a powerful view with its own attractions and pitfalls.
THE MORAL SUBJECTIVIST
If you are a Moral subjectivist, you firmly reject the idea that “Right is right, even if no one is doing it. Wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it”. Instead, you believe that it is up to either the society or the individual to ultimately determine what is good and what is evil.
There are no moral laws that exist outside of us…therefore it is up to us to make up our own beliefs about what is right and wrong.
This view is wildly popular because it allows people the freedom to make up their own morality and to say to others such classic one-liners like “You can’t judge me…It’s my life!” and “That’s just your opinion!”
Society Ultimately Determines Right and Wrong
You can see the attraction of this view. But you can probably also see the potential problems with such a view. If you believe that society is the ultimate determiner of good and evil, you can literally justify genocide by a 51% vs 49% vote. If Hitler had won World War 2 and in 2021 the majority of the world’s population agrees that his racist and genocidal views are morally good…well then his racist and genocidal views are morally good. The moral subjectivist would have no basis for objecting to Hitler’s views in this alternative timeline because society determines morality and it has determined Hitler’s actions were morally good.
Even in our timeline today the consistent moral subjectivist is stuck in the same problem in principle. If you believe all morality is subjective and your country or even the UN passes a law you find morally evil, you are caught in what is called the “Reformers Dilemma”.
The Reformers Dilemma is simple yet brutal. Society passes a law which the majority of people think is morally good. You think the law is morally evil. Here’s the kicker: You can’t advocate for a change in the “good” law without becoming an advocate for evil.
Remember it is a society that determines right and wrong. If you go against what society says is right you are by definition fighting against what is right. You have become a warrior for evil.
Therefore society can never be reformed by a consistent moral subjectivist who believes society determines right and wrong. Because to go against societies’ judgement on what is good is to transform yourself into an advocate for evil.
So believing that society ultimately determines what is right and wrong doesn’t work. What about believing that we as individuals determine what is right and wrong for ourselves and others?
I Ultimately Determine What is Right and Wrong
The view that a person has a right to decide what is ultimately right and wrong for themselves also has a major problem.
This position may sound enticing…until someone steals your wallet. Or breaks a contract with you. Or even just talks about you behind your back. You may think that stealing, breaking contracts or backstabbing is wrong. The other person may not. Who are you to judge them, or to impose your moral beliefs on them?
What right do you have (as a moral subjectivist) to claim that your moral code is superior to theirs?
Now you could say “How would you like it if I did those things to you?” or you could say that “Society wouldn’t work if we all treated each other so unfairly”.
But again…that is your moral code with an emphasis on societal cooperation. It may or may not be their moral code.
Who can be the referee on this topic if good and evil is ultimately up the individual to decide?
“Well we have laws…” you could claim. But that is precisely the point under dispute. If you think it is up to society to ultimately determine what is right and wrong, you fall back into the Reformers Dilemma. If it is up to the individual then who are you to impose your morality on others?
If all morality is ultimately just a case of personal preference, then you have the same right to impose your morality on the robber or the rapist as you do to impose your favourite ice-cream preference upon them. They prefer theft and non-consensual sex. You prefer property rights and consent. They prefer vanilla and chocolate. You prefer strawberry and butterscotch.
But you’d never dream of imposing your ice-cream flavours upon these others by force of law….why do you think you have the right to enforce your favourite flavour of morality upon others by force of law?
If you resort to making some claim about human flourishing being the greatest good, it is important to note that there are certain hard-line environmentalists who have claimed that humanity is a parasite on Mother Earth and therefore need to be eliminated for the sake of the greater good.
You’ve assumed that human flourishing is the greatest good, rather than assuming that the health of Mother Earth is the greatest good.
So we’re back to the original problem. All moral subjectivists face the irreconcilable contradiction of enforcing their moral claims upon others while at the same time affirming “It’s up to the individual to decide for themselves what is right and wrong”.
The crises of morality in our present age is not going away anytime soon. There are too many disagreements at the most fundamental level regarding how we know what is good and what is evil.
The secular moral objectivists run aground on the fact that “science can show us, how to make an atomic bomb, but not how to use it.” Their expedition to discover judgements regarding good and evil in nature without reference to a Divine Mind was ultimately in vain.
On the other hand, the moral subjectivists found themselves unexpectedly trapped while enjoying the limelight and fashionable applause of the 21st century. Inside the twin pythons of the Reformers Dilemma and their need to legislate their preferred personal morality on others, moral subjectivism was slowly crushed to death as a viable moral principle.
Christianity stands alone as a moral framework that is both consistent and coherent in the service of human flourishing. And this is no wonder, as its founder took on human flesh and now bears the scars of infinite love towards His creation. His arms are open, His heart is aflame and both His threatenings towards evil and His grace towards the sinner and saint alike are as trustworthy today as the day He gave up His life for humanity.
Will we plow ahead in intellectual and ethical futility? Or will we come together around our Creator and learn His will and ways for the 21st century? Historians will one day teach classes on how we chose to answer this question.
Have you ever noticed that the most important things in life are the hardest to talk about?