Morality: A question of law or opinion

Arguments for the existence of an absolute moral law.

In our age of multicultural relativism, the ten commandments are often viewed as dead platitudes, antiquated and irrelevant for modern man. Several years ago, there was a long and furious debate when a judge in America placed the ten commandments in his courtroom. Despite the fact that they were eventually removed, the judge received a lot of support for his action. In the last century, God was declared dead and yet it appears that it is only His detractors who have died and He is still alive. Various countries have tried, and yet have been unable to banish God. A zampolit (protector of Soviet dogma) pressuring a Christian pastor, was asked by that pastor, “If the party told him tomorrow to go to church and light a candle, what would he do?” He responded, that it would never happen. Well, that “never” has happened and that tomorrow has come. Many years later that same zampolit printed Gospel tracks for me, an American missionary. Even today in China, despite incessant governmental measures to counter religion, the church in China is one of the largest churches in the world and growing. God just won’t die and His law won’t go away. Are there absolute moral laws, or are they dependent upon the changing trends of human thought? Let’s examine this issue.

Humans are moral beings. It would seem that this statement is self-evident. However, the implications and the explanations of this fact have left some difficulties in the minds of those who would like to banish God from the consciousness of mankind forever. Darwinian sociologists attempting to construct a theory for the moral bearing within humans, have yet to formulate an adequate explanation. The relative moralist attempts to view ethical standards determined either by the individual or their social unit. The result is either individualism in some form of self-rule, or democratic morality that is up for vote in a sea of fluctuating public opinion. Yet the sense of justice and the understanding of right and wrong are so much a part of what it means to be human. The relativist insists that there are not absolute standards of right or wrong, yet when they are personally wronged, they are quick to condemn, and when confronted with the expression of raw evil they recoil from its horror, and rightfully so. The relativist, which for the most part comprises much of our present generation, is “relatively” moral. But below the surface the evil still lurks and the struggle continues.
In an effort to avoid absolute moral laws, great pains are taken to abdicate all absolutes. It is a valiant but vain effort, since it is also self-defeating. A teacher with whom I was discoursing was quite offended by the notion of absolutes and she made the declaration that “there are no absolutes”. The implication of her statement is quite obvious, but intentionally overlooked by many. The implication is that the declaration is in itself a statement of absolute. And being such, it relegates itself to absurdity. Truth is a term of absolutes. Something is either true or false. Truth speaks to the reality of things independent of how I perceive, think, or want things to be. So far, the logical law of non-contradiction has survived the onslaught of its critics, and it is my suspicion that it will continue to survive even as the relativists stubbornly bang their heads against the brick wall.
If there are absolutes, can there also be absolute moral laws? If the human conscience is any indicator, then they do exist. What is the conscience? I would define conscience as the inner law that guides us in the our daily decisions. It can justify our actions which are in accordance with our moral law. And it can produce a feeling of guilt when there is an incongruency between our behavior and our moral standard. I always liked the illustration some North American Indians use to describe the workings of conscience and guilt. They say that within every heart there is a knife. This knife turns like the minute hand on a clock. Every time the heart lies, the knife rotates an increment. As it turns, it cuts into the heart. As it turns, it carves a circle. The more it turns, the wider the circle becomes. After the knife has rotated one full circle, a path has been carved. The result? No more hurt, no more heart. (Max Lucado, Finding a Fathers Love) It is important to note here that the conscience is not the absolute moral law. It is only an imperfect representation. The Bible refers to this innate sense of right and wrong as the law written in our hearts that bears witness and accuses or excuses. Can it be denied? Of course, but we go against our conscience to our own hurt. Just as the body is wonderfully equipped with pain sensors to warn us of danger, we are likewise equipped with moral sensors to warn of spiritual danger that we may not lose our soul. And if the conscience of a nation is in shambles, what hope do we have for its citizenry?

Difficult ethical situations are put forth as a demonstration of the “impossibility” of moral absolutes. Scenarios are constructed that pit two moral choices against each other resulting in a moral dilemma. The result is a made-for-TV situation far removed from reality. “Suppose that someone made you choose which person to kill first and if you refuse they will kill everyone.” or “Kill this person or we will kill your child.” I’ve seen these scenarios proposed on various occasions. Of course these are very hypothetical, but even taken at face value it leaves little doubt as to the proper course of action despite the heavy emotional toll. One always has a choice not to participate in their evil. The danger in these scenarios is that by extension we also participate as we justify actions. The key to seeing through these scenarios is to cut through the emotional manipulation and look for the third, fourth or fifth option which was conveniently forgotten to fit their agenda. The foundational problem in these scenarios is a misunderstanding of moral law. It is an attempt to enforce a technicality of law that misrepresents the law. This tactic was used unsuccessfully against Jesus. His opponents tried to have Jesus agree to the stoning of an adulterous woman. However, He not only revealed their hypocrisy, but demonstrated God’s mercy. He then said to her, “Go and sin no more”, reaffirming God’s standard and man’s responsibility.

Difficult questions abound. The proponent for moral absolute is acutely aware of this and wrestles with these issues. The fully amoral troubles himself not over such trifles as ethics. Today as technology continues to explode, we are faced more and more with these difficulties. They are not easy questions nor are there easy answers. For instance, many couples have eggs fertilized to implant at a later time. The couple divorces and the embryos are still being stored in a suspended state in the freezer. What should be done with the frozen embryos? Whose are they? I will not try to resolve this issue here, but one thing is immediately obvious, the source of the dilemma is choices made much earlier than the “dilemma”. Moral dilemmas are very often of our own making, and the answers are usually much simpler than we are willing to admit. In many cases, we must confess that in the end, there may be no out except an appeal to God for His mercy. Despite the complexities, abolishing moral standards is not the answer. In fact, more than ever we need these standards to guide us through the ever-expanding labyrinth of moral complexities of our day. We must constantly remind ourselves that just because we can, does not mean we should.

The consequences of adapting relative ethics can be devastating. The Nazis were notorious for using Darwinian ethics of survival of the fittest. It is pertinent that we understand that the Nazis’ obliteration of the weaker races and people was for them a moral obligation. In other words, they believed they were doing “good” by killing off these people. It was evolution put into practice. The consistent moral relativist must ask, “Why not? What is right for them is right for them and who are we to judge them?”. They would be right but for one caveat– a universal moral law that supersedes us all. This is the main basis for the Nuremberg trials, imperfect as they were. Are we willing to dispense of a universal moral law and live in a world were there are no restraints and might makes right? We cannot fully comprehend the atrocity of the what the Nazis did until we understand that the monstrosity of Nazis was not one of barbarianism, but one of highly civilized philosophy. It is easy for us to forget that there is a thin line between civilization and savagery, and often that savagery can lie very near to the surface. History has demonstrated that it takes very little coaxing to revive it through fear, crises and ideologies.

Another important angle to the discussion is the issue of free will and determinism. A belief in Darwinian evolution has naturally led to a form of determinism. We are products of chance processes devoid of intelligence or purpose. Man is reduced to a mass of cells and chemicals acting upon honed instincts. We do what we do because that is who we are. Just as a lion tears his prey so we fulfill our lot in life. What kind of choice can we expect from such beings and how can we make moral demands. Today, we give condoms away in schools, because “they are kids and they will not be able to control sexual urges” (which is not surprising due to the nature of the information with which they are bombarded daily through the media). This determinism is expressed in the understanding of criminal behavior, “He had a bad childhood.” Of course our environment comes to play in our choices in life, but we still bear the responsibility for the choices we make. Can we expect youth to respect their bodies instead of giving in to animal instincts? Can we expect people with difficult childhoods to NOT kill or maim others? Determinism and reductionism do not empower man, they take away his soul. I believe that we are creatures made in the image of God. We are more than our chemical make up. We contain the free will to fulfill our role before God here on this earth. However, with that free will also comes the ability to sin and go against our Creator. The most important choice we make is not about our daily ethical decisions, it is how we will choose to relate to God. In fact, the Ten Commandments were not just written to regulate behavior. They are a demonstration of God’s high expectations for us. They are reminders of our position before God. They bring us face to face with our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy. In Galatians we read,

“But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Galatians 3:22-24

We have all repeatedly broken God’s absolute moral law. However, with God there is mercy and forgiveness. Christ paid the penalty of sin through the death on the Cross that we may freely come to receive forgiveness and a new life with God.

The moral relativists assert that morality is a constantly moving target. Could it be that they are true in their observation, yet false in their conclusion? Could it be that it is not morality that is constantly in motion, but modern man who is moving relative to morality? Could it be that morality is fixed as a guiding star, which we willfully ignore and instead rely on our own intuition to navigate the murky waters? Undoubtedly, it is we who are adrift and not morality. Today’s ethics are peddled in fast moving pictures comprised of millions of bits of information in a constant state of flux. The uneasy uncertainty wears on us and deep down there is a desire to know the truth and to find freedom in that truth. The Ten Commandments were engraved in stone. It is symbolic of the longevity and immutability of that law. Yes, that stone can crush, but it can also give guidance. Most importantly it can guide us to Christ.

Written to be published in Slovo Vchitelyu “The word to teachers”, a Ukrainian Christian journal for teachers.

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