Monday, February 22, 2010

The Rational Case For Christianity - Morality

Previously, in my introduction to The Rational Case for Christianity, I established the criteria that we will use to determine if Christianity is a true and practically viable worldview. For it to be valid, it must be able to account for any aspect of reality or life and leave no contradictions. In the realm of morality, we are confronted with philosophical questions regarding the existence and nature of good and evil. These questions have been pondered for centuries, and are inescapably critical in considering human existence and human interactions. While morality is a fairly broad subject, it is certainly a narrower field than epistemology or metaphysics. As such, it is not especially hard to look at the basic questions and the various possible answers to each. We will examine the basic questions of morality and ascertain which answers are the most rational, logical and consistent with our experience of reality.

The first question we must ask concerning morality is whether good and evil actually exist. At this point, we will not concern ourselves with what is meant by "good" and "evil," only with whether they, by any definition, exist. There are two possible answers to this question:

1 - Good and evil do not truly exist
2 - Good and evil do truly exist

In considering the first answer, we find that such an answer, while theoretically possible, is not consistent with the human experience of the reality. Every human being, from time immemorium, has always firmly believed that certain things are reasonable courses of action and that there are also evils to be opposed, decryed or resisted. Whether expressed through conventional expressions of morality such as laws and social contracts against murder and thievery, whether expressed as mourning over natural evils, such as disasters which exact their toll on human life, or whether expressed in terms of values, all people in all times have firmly believed that certain things are good and certain things or actions are evil. Even philosophers who border on denying the existence of evil, such as Nietzsche, firmly advocate certain things as desirable and oppose certain things (in Nietzsche's case, conventional morality) as evil and restrictive. So long as it is agreed that certain actions and states of being are desirable and other actions or states of being are undesirable, there is universal human consensus that good and evil, in some form, are not non-existent.

A possible objection to this might arise from those who claim, on the basis of metaphysics, that both good and evil are illusory--they are false constructs. There are several major worldviews which might proffer such as answer. Materialism, denying the existence of all thing non-physical, would suggest that there is only an "is" and no "ought." Since the natural world is silent on matters such as murder, lying, adultery and death, it might be reasoned that good and evil don't truly exist, except as empty terms to express human approval. Pantheistic religions offer the answer that all diversity is ultimately illusory. Their conception of good and evil is well depicted by the symbol of the yin-yang, which represents the truth that ultimately good and evil are just different aspect of the the same thing, and that there is no real difference between the two. For that reason, enlightened ones in such religions seek to equally avoid both good and evil, in order to achieve zero karma. While these might seem to be pertinent objections, it yet remains that from time immemorium, even those who claim that good and evil don't exist live their lives as if they do. They still proclaim certain actions and states as desirable and others as undesirable. Clearly, those who deny the existence of good and evil are in denial of their own thoughts and feelings on the matter. As such, any worldview that denies the existence of good and evil is practically incompatible with human experience. Since these sorts of answers deny a clear and obvious aspect of reality, they are irrational.

The second answer to our question, that good and evil, in some form, do exist, is the only rational, logical answer that is consistent with the human experience of reality. As such, the next moral question we must address is, what form do good and evil take? There are two possible categories of answers to such a question:

1 - Good and evil are subjectively defined
2 - Good and evil are objectively defined

Answer number 1 is the general consensus of our day. Modern humanistic morality espouses the idea that morals are a function of social groups. According to the humanistic myths, morals emerged as groups of people began to form, and agreements were reached concerning what behaviors were socially acceptable and which were not. The social construct theory of morality essentially postulates that whatever actions are viewed as socially unacceptable by a societal majority are labeled as "wrong" or "evil," and whatever actions are socially approved and endorsed are labeled as "right" or "good." While this approach does clearly delineate and define morals, it also serves to trivialize them. If morals are subjectively defined, then they only represent the opinions of those who define them. The social construct theory takes a democratic approach to defining morality. Nietzsche would advocate a meritocratic approach to defining morality, wherein the enlightened philosophers are established as the societal lawgivers who create their own values and then impose such restrictions upon the dependent masses. There are numerous other arrangements for defining morality, but they all share the same intrinsic weakness.

With any form of subjectively morality, right and wrong become trivialized and bear no more significance than culinary preferences. I will explain. When good and evil are defined by any person or group of people, it is their moral motions that become the overriding force. Yet, what exactly is a moral motion? It is nothing more than a personal preference for certain actions, things and states of affairs and against other acctions, things and states of affairs. As such, when it is said that murder is "wrong," nothing more is meant than the person or group defining morality has a distaste for murder. If the declaration that murder is "wrong" means that murder is merely distasteful to a person or group, then it is akin to a person's or group's taste for broccoli or asparagus. If moral motions are merely personal preferences, then the declaration that stealing is evil carries equal weight to the declaration that one strongly dislikes garlic. As human experience quite easily shows, people have widely divergent tastes in food. Some people enjoy foods which others loathe. Some people have no strong feelings about any sort of dish or herb. Some people love garlic, others tolerate it and still others won't come within a mile of it. Now, if some people enjoy garlic, is it at all reasonable for a person or group to deny them such a priviliege? Similarly, if there are a number of people who especially enjoy adultery or stealing, is it at all reasonable for a person or group to deny them such a pleasure? This is the weakness of any form of subjective morality: unless a certain moral motion is universally held, the very definitions of good and evil are unreasonably restrictive and oppressive. Even a cursory glance at humanity will instantly reveal that no moral motion or culinary preference is universally held.

The other major problem with subjective morality is that it is inconsistent with the human existence. Any person who truly subscribes to subjective morality must willfully conform to the prevailing code of morality as established by the defining person or group. As such, it is unreasonable to cast any sort of moral judgment that opposes the socially-established morality or to cast a moral judgment on a group that conforms to a different code of morality. If morality is subjectively defined, then it stands that no action is objectively right or wrong. The rightness or wrongness of any given action is solely subject to the localized code of ethics that governs it. This means that so long as the moral authority of a social group or nation endorses certain actions, they must be considered moral by all people at all times as morally good. If Hitler's Germany declares the Jews to be evil and endorses killing Jews, then so long as morals are subjectively defined, we in modern America have no place to declare that the Holocaust was wrong or evil. If an action is subjectively good within its own moral context, then given that fact that there is no objective moral standards, there is no room for anyone to cast a judgment of their own. To do so is akin to declaring to the garlic-lover, "Because I dislike garlic, your love for garlic is evil and reprehensible!" Such a statement is ridiculous and presumptious!

It is this very sentiment that renders subjective morality inconsistent with human existence. Each person firmly believes that certain actions and states of being are undesirable, not only for himself, but for all others. We truly feel that genocide is something which is evil and unconscionable, regardless of who endorses mass killings. We truly believe that stealing is objectively wrong, even if we claim that morals are subjectively defined. The moral motions of each person are so strong that no person will accept subjective morality, unless they themselves are in the defining group and are free to inflict their will upon others. Subjective morality declares that each person's taste in actions is equally valid (although the moral authority's opinion on the matter is a little more equal than everyone else's), and this contradicts every moral fiber of a person's being. Subjective morality declares that people's actions are of no more import than steamed brussel sprouts, while human beings strongly believe that actions are not trivial and do matter very much. It is quite clear, then, that no person truly believes in subjective morality. This answer is one that, while logical, is utterly unlivable and inconsistent with the day to day living of any human being, living or dead.

Answer number 2, by necessity, is the only answer that establishes any real basis for human morality, and it is the only one that can be consistent with human living. For good and evil to exist and have any real meaning or practical applicability, morality must be objectively defined. Morality must be something that is transcendent and universal, else it lacks any strength or usefulness of any sort. If we say that murder is evil, we must mean that it is objectively wrong for all people, at all times, in all places, else we are saying nothing at all. If we say that adultery is evil, we must mean that it is a objectively reprehensible action, regardless of one's ability to avoid getting caught, one's social status or one's present life circumstances. Morality must be objective to be a meaningful concept. If it is anything less then objective, then morality is just a semantic game, lacking any real authority or practical application. The only logical, rational conclusion that can be reached is that humans have real moral motions and feelings because good and evil exist and are objectively defined.

Given that good and evil exist, by some definition, and that good and evil must be objectively defined to be concepts of any merit or usefulness, this leads us to our third question. By what standard or standards are good and evil objectively defined?

1. Good and evil are defined by the universe itself
2. Good and evil are self-defined
3. Good and evil are defined by a transcendent, infinite, personal being

Answer number 1, while an interesting conjecture, leaves us with a poor and utterly incomplete definition of both good and evil. Some may suggest that morals can be derived from the physical universe and its attributes alone. Many people who subscribe to empirical philosophies believe that through a thorough and proper study of our physical universe and material existence humans can arrive at a solid set of moral precepts which set appropriate limits on human behavior. Contention with this point of view clearly arises in modern philosophy. Immanuel Kant clearly illustrated the problem with deriving morals from nature itself by revealing the simple truth that one can never derive an "ought" from an "is". More simply put, while observations of nature can reveal a good number of things about a given state of affairs, one can find no judgments made by nature concerning such a state. When a mouse is eaten by a quick and cunning cat, nature says no more than that the cat has eaten the mouse and that the mouse is now dead. It says nothing about whether it is good that the mouse has been eaten or whether it is good that the cat has had a satisfying supper. The universe is perfectly silent over whether lying, murder, deception, torture, stealing, fornication, or rape are desirable or undesirable actions. As such, nature is an insufficient basis for objective morality. Nature is completely silent concerning all moral issues.

Answer number 2, if true, would lead to moral standards that are incommunicable. Since communication of any sort necessitates a comminucator, good and evil as mere concepts, cannot be both self-defined and communicable. As such, while there is the hypothetical possibility that trascendent concepts of good and evil exist independently of all else (including any divine beings), such self-defined concepts would also be functionally useless, given that no beings would know the definitions of good and evil. Additionally, there is the epistemic problem of any non-infinite independent concept. For any concept or piece of knowledge to be reliable or intelligible, it is necessary for it to be explained by a infinite reference point. If good and evil exist as independent and self-defined concepts, then they do not exist within the framework of an infinite reference point, and since the concepts of morality are implicitly non-infinite themselves, there is no possible way to understand such concepts, since they are floating conceptions without any means of being explained. In my next essay on epistemology, I will explain this concept in fuller detail. As a small example of this concept, how does one know what is meant when I say "The sky is blue," unless there is a reference point which explains what is meant by the words, "the," "sky," "is," and "blue." Without the higher concept of the English language and common linguistic definitions, there is no way to determine what is meant by a certain array of colored dots on a screen or printed ink blots on a page. In a similar way, without a infinite concept to explain what is meant by good and evil, even if they are self-existent concepts, they bear no more significance or meaning that a cacophony of sounds, a jumble of letters or a smattering of random colors. This answer, while theoretically possible, would means that morality is unintelligible and incommunicable. Since such concepts are incompatible with practical living and human existence, it is clear that such an answer is a wholly unsatisfactory one, even neglecting the fact that there is an utter absence of evidence in support of it.

Answer number 3, then is the only possible answer which leaves us with a foundation upon which morals exist objectively, are intelligible, and bear real moral meaning. It is necessary not merely that good and evil truly exist, but that they have objective meaning in the light of an infinite point of reference and that they are communicable. There are a few religions that postulate the existence of a transcendent, infinite, personal being who sets the moral standards for human behavior--namely those of the Abrahamic religions. There is little need to going into much detail on the various moral differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, since our findings in the realms of metaphysics preclude Islam from being a sufficient explanation, even if it provides a satisying moral foundation (which it doesn't), and because Judaic and Christian morality are essentially identical.

Christianity, unlike any other worldview, provides a full and clear disclosure on morality. It testifies that the real God who exists has ordained certain limits on human behavior, which are not merely suggestions, but are real moral laws. It speaks to the nature of humans, who are real, free-willed moral agents, capable of both great good and horrific evils. The Bible very specifically spells out moral laws for humans, including an organizational hierarchy of which moral laws are most important and which are less important. God transparently delineates the consequences for failing to abide by His moral precepts. In the doctrine of Original Sin, a clear picture of the present moral state of mankind is painted for us: though humans were created sinless in the image of God, as a species we have chosen to violate God's real moral laws and therefore bear real moral guilt before the God who exists and who judges all human actions. Because of the fall of man, every human being is born into the world with a sinful nature, which is, a propensity to choose evil and to rejects God's ways and God's truth. Christianity also sets forth a solution to the moral dilemma of man in the propitiary sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. From start to finish, Christianity explains why all people have strong moral sentiments, and testifies that morals are not merely social constructions, personal preferences or sociological averages, but are a reflection of God's divine precepts, written on the hearts of every living person and communication through the Holy Bible.

On such a basis alone is it possible to declare that certain actions are righteous and other actions are evil. Apart from the existence of the objective morality preached by Christianity, it is impossible to decry the murder of innocents, the exploitation of the weak, the evils of corruption, the injustices of tyranny or the wickedness of pride. If man's moral motions are merely random remnants of genetic mutations, then they are meaningless illusions meant to muddle our minds. If morals are relative and differ from individual to individual, then there is no adequate basis for judging human action or legislating codes of ethics. The universal human belief in desirable and undesirable states of being is not simply the product of accidental neural collisions in the synapses of our brains--instead, it is the reflection of the transcendent truth of the existence of real moral standards as created and communicated by God. Only if good and evil truly exist and are objectively defined, universal, knowable concepts does the commandment, "Thou shalt not murder," have any power or authority. If it is merely the preference of a few odd conglomerations of atoms, then it is a relative truth which doesn't actually apply to any atoms at all. But, if "Thou shalt not murder" is the moral precept of an infinite God, then it is powerful and profound.

As stated in my introductory essay, any worldview that declares to be the truth must perfectly match all the evidence of reality. The existence of the moral motions universally felt by humans is a part of reality that must be explained. The Eastern religions ultimately deny the reality of morality, because the deny the reality of human life. Denial of plain truths is irrational. Similarly, attempts to deny the existence of morals contradict everything that is known about human experience. Alternately, attempts to explain morals as relative concepts fall on their face, since they are impractical, exceptionally weak and unable to be consistently held. Consequently, the only logical, rational explanation for the moral motions universally held by human beings is that there truly exist both good and evil, as defined by an objective standard. The Judeo-Christian tradition is the only worldview that offers an objective and communicable basis for morality, as it is the only worldview that attests to an infinite-personal being that exists, is intrinsically relational, speaks truly, and has established a specific set of moral precepts which are binding and authoritative. All other worldviews either deny the validity of the human conceptions of good and evil or contradict the obvious experience of every living person. As such, the only logical, rational conclusion to reach, concerning morality, is that Christianity has the best explanation for the moral motions of humans, since it fully explains the reason for the existence of morals, the objective moral standards that exist, and man's moral dilemma, while simultaneously contradicting none of the evidence of reality.

1 comment:

  1. Very thought provoking.
    The answer given to your first question boils down to: Yes, the concept of good and evil exist.
    The answer given to you second question boils down to: No, it won't work if everyone just makes up their own morality.
    Then, with your third question, you have already concluded that there must be an objective morality, and decide that this must come from some form of "God".

    I think you've used a bit of straw man argument here, in the first two questions.

    Here's how I would answer the questions:
    1. Yes, the concept of good and evil certainly do exist.
    2. Good and evil are terms that encapsulate the morality of a society. The exact definition of what is good and evil will vary depending on the society. In the bible, Paul mentions the notion of slavery without implying that it's evil, whereas most people in our society would think slavery is deplorable. In the bible, God condoned genocide. Was God being evil? Or to take a more modern example: would it be good or evil if I chopped down a tree to make a nice chair for somebody who needed it? Different people would have different ideas - a greenie would rather preserve the rainforest, while others would see the merit of the charitable act.
    3. The third question doesn't apply, since I've said that good and evil aren't defined objectively.

    To quote you: 'To do so is akin to declaring to the garlic-lover, "Because I dislike garlic, your love for garlic is evil and reprehensible!" Such a statement is ridiculous and presumptious! '

    This sounds ridiculous to argue over garlic, but it actually is the way society works. To make it sound a bit more realistic, I could phrase it like "Because I dislike murder, your love for murder is evil and reprihensible!". Or, "Because I recognise the suffering caused by dumping toxic waste into a river, your choice to dump toxic waste is evil and reprihensible!". Or "Because I think people shouldn't be treated miserably, Islamist oppression of women is evil". It's not always possible to objectively prove which viewpoint is good or evil. There are some things that pretty much all humans will agree on as being good or evil - eg. It's evil to randomly kill innocent people. And it's good to look after the needy. But most things fall into a grey area of neither particularly good nor evil. I wonder what things we currently do or believe, that our descendants will consider to be evil? Rampant antibiotic use? Over consumption of natural resources? Christianity values don't really address these issues. In fact, the pope recently came up with a new seven social sins:
    1. "Bioethical" violations such as birth control
    2. "Morally dubious" experiments such as stem cell research
    3. Drug abuse
    4. Polluting the environment
    5. Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
    6. Excessive wealth
    7. Creating poverty

    It's not canon but it's a good start on modern issues regarding good and evil.

    I will also point out that even if God does prescribe the definitive morality, then what are the exact rules we're talking about? Is there any grey area? Can you list the entire morality as stated by God? Why are there so many flavours of christianity that have slightly different moralities? Are some churches just out of touch with God - and if so, which church is genuinely espousing God's morality?

    Excellent post though - very thought provoking, even if I don't agree with a lot of what you're saying.