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Moral Absolutes

Do you believe in moral absolutes? Are there are some things that are intrinsically moral or immoral, regardless of socio-historical context? Murder, for instance. Most, if not all societies have had, and do have, constraints on killing outside the context of war and self-defence. Certainly, such constraints are often administered with inequity and hypocrisy. The rich and powerful might kill with impunity while the poor and powerless are executed, jailed or exiled for much lesser crimes. But despite how such laws might be administered, there remains a fundamental sense that in a civilised society people should not just kill whomever and whenever they wish.

Societies vary in what is considered immoral and permissible. In the west, we recoil at the thought of polygamy, forced marriages and underage marriage. Yet these are accepted in other societies, and have been for centuries. It is not so long ago that such practices were effectively permitted in European societies as well, albeit under the socially acceptable label of “mistresses.” Adultery is not illegal in western societies, although it is in some countries where, paradoxically, a man might lawfully take a young teenager as his wife. Such practices are often based on an intrinsic difference in the perception of the worth of women compared with men; so perhaps the fundamental moral principle is not adultery per se, but the status of women. Is the equality of men and women a moral absolute? Is protecting the innocence of children and preventing their exploitation a moral absolute? I think they are, but on what basis?

There is a perceived difference between illegality and immorality. Adultery may not be illegal, but it is largely perceived as “immoral,” or at least hurtful and destructive of relationships. The perception will tend to be different between the one who has the “affair” and the spouse who feels betrayed, particularly when there are children involved. Is the adulterous partner merely foolish and selfish, or are they immoral? Would it depend on the context? The answers to these questions and their justifications will be legion. Even if a religious framework is cited, hypocrisy abounds. It’s all very well to claim allegiance to the Ten Commandments or other moral code, until it’s you or someone close to you who becomes the offender.

Although differences between societies may be couched in terms of “progressiveness” and “enlightenment,” a moving on from restrictive and hypocritical religious impositions, it should be recognised that many of the laws of so-called enlightened, progressive, western civilised society are based on Judaeo-Christian values such as the Ten Commandments. Whether re-defined, excused, conveniently ignored, there is an intrinsic respect for principles such as “you shall not kill,” “you shall not steal,” "you shall not commit adultery,” "you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour,” “honour your father and mother.” They contribute to a better society. There is much less acknowledgement and respect, though, for the rest of the Ten, such as having no other gods, not making idols for ourselves and not coveting what belongs to others. Thus morality becomes somewhat subjective and contextualised. A man might flirt with a colleague at work, even chance a brief, satisfying and “harmless” affair, but threaten to kill the B*&$%& who is having it off with his wife on the side. We might want to see the punk locked up, who stole our car or broke into our house to feed his crack habit, yet have no real issue with cheating on taxes, or “bringing stuff home from the office.”

So, are there moral absolutes? If so, where do they come from and must they be rooted in some concept of “religion?” A colleague of mine, a self-confessed atheist, is one of the most moral people I know. He is a man of great integrity and moral conviction, trustworthy, altruistic and consistent in his beliefs and his behaviour. There are many people like him, good citizens, people who have a clear concept of right and wrong, who who would stand by their convictions even under great temptation and pressure. Where do such moral frameworks come from, if they are not based on religious conviction? I suggest two origins.

The first is a sense of what is good for society, in an extension of evolutionary theory that sees survival of society as the greater good that transcends focus on survival and flourishing of the individual at all costs. In other words, the flourishing of society, as a collective of individuals, is the next, higher evolutionary step from individual competitiveness which seeks to merely propagate one’s own DNA at the expense of others’. Social animals demonstrate this, and human beings in our complex, highly developed societies, demonstrate it even more. The good of most individuals, and the individual’s chances of perpetuating their DNA, are enhanced when society as a whole flourishes. So it is no longer “good” to kill and to steal in order for me to survive and my opponent to not survive. The “fittest” has been redefined as the one who works for the good of society, so that everyone (or most) can flourish and survive and procreate, not just the physically “strongest.” To that extent, we have rules to legislate some aspects of morality for the greater good (such as not murdering or stealing) whereas others which are perceived as relatively harmless (at least in small doses) such as adultery, are not illegal. Human rights and individual moral responsibility are legally enshrined, to ensure society can flourish.

The second origin of moral conscience is more intrinsic and individual. Adultery, to continue the example, is not illegal, people have been committing adultery since time began, and society is still thriving. Sure, if too many people did it, and marriage as an institution was significantly eroded, that might be detrimental in the long run but hey, what’s most important is my rights and needs right now. To say no to temptation and be faithful to one's spouse is a moral decision, placing integrity, faithfulness and love above other drives. It’s at this individual level where the rubber hits the road. Our individual morality, our integrity and moral responsibility is, ultimately, not defined solely by the laws and traditions of our society and the "greater good" of its flourishing. As they say, you can't legislate morality, anyhow.

On one end of the spectrum comes the private behaviours. The respect and love we do or don’t show to our family and friends; the co-called “locker room talk;” the private viewing of pornography, the office flirting (see Matthew 5:27–28); the ease at which we lie, tell half-truths, and self-justify. The anger and hatred we feel toward another, wishing we could hurt them in some way to exact revenge ; the subtle differences in the way we treat people of our own culture, ethnicity and socioeconomic status compared with those who are not like us. The maintenance or degradation of our individual morality will have effects not only on ourselves and those to whom we serve as examples (and we are all examples to others, especially our children, whether we like it or not). It will, ultimately, have effects on society.

I suspect that if most people in western society were asked to draw a line in the stand, to specify one or more moral absolutes, acts that could never be condoned, most people would nominate paedophilic practices. Other possibilities would be slavery, genocide, first degree murder, rape, torture and so on. Of course, all of these have been practised with impunity during the history of humanity and continue to be practised across the world today, even in our self-designated “enlightened” societies. What makes these things morally repugnant to “us” and not to others? Who is to decide that these things are indeed unacceptable if practiced as a right or privilege of the few and for the survival and even “flourishing” of their own vision for society? Who could argue that genocide, plunder and rapine have not allowed individuals and societies to survive and even flourish?

Here lies the problem; if we had grown up in a society that regarded such things as morally permissible, would we be any different? Societal norms are, ultimately, insufficient to determine moral absolutes. Laws are in place to constrain the excesses that are ultimately harmful to the “greater good” of society, but they are insufficient to contain moral corruption (see Colossians 2:21-23). And if moral corruption permeates society sufficiently from enough individuals, then the moral compass of society will change. We have seen recently how the subtle legitimisation of certain racist, sexist and hateful behaviours have served to bring latent behaviours into the open, to the encouragement of some and the bewilderment, horror and anger of others. Individuals cannot be trusted to determine moral absolutes. Ultimately, we are too good at justifying our own contextualised moral frameworks. A paedophile has a different moral framework than a non-paedophile; somehow they must justify the way they fulfill their inclinations. Even if it be acknowledged that the vast majority would draw the line at this behaviour, the arguably “lesser” moral transgressions could never be fully agreed upon. Why should my moral framework be held superior to yours? Who is to say that the man who has an affair is "less moral" than his wife who does not? Has he ultimately hurt society? To whom, ultimately, is he answerable?

The Bible explains why individuals cannot be the final arbiters of morality, the determiners of moral absolutes.

  • "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

  • "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." (Matthew 15:19 ESV)

If your moral framework is as legitimate as mine, if we have no right to tell others how to behave, why do we persist on doing it? Society permits me to tell a person it's wrong to do certain things, but I'm "intolerant" if I tell them not to do other things. Why do we claim the moral high ground in some areas and not others? What basis can we claim for moral superiority other than a set of moral absolutes? But who is to define these moral absolutes? Shall we take a vote across the societies of the world, across humanity? Shall we appoint representatives to debate them and decide? Who chooses the leaders and how shall their competing opinions and interests be balanced?

Here is the audacity of the Judeo-Christian heritage and the outrageous claim of the Bible. For best results, follow the Manufacturer’s instructions. Any claim to moral authority over humanity and its activities can only legitimately come from its Manufacturer. Could it be that God has placed the seed of morality in our hearts, so that deep down, even the worst of us has an idea of what is fundamentally right and wrong? Only the One who is above humanity, outside of it, humanity’s Creator and ultimate determiner of what is good and right, can rise above the competing moral claims of a multitude of selfish human beings and give ultimate direction. To those who believe in moral absolutes and genuinely aspire to do what is intrinsically right and good, that’s where your sense of right and wrong ultimately originated. Such a One even offers the antidote to the moral bankruptcy of our hearts; the forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ, the enabling to be the type of people we were designed to be.

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