Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Is Morality Relative, Absolute or Neither?

In an interesting post at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath offers his thoughts on a recent debate between a moral relativist and a moral absolutist. In particular, he raises several objections to the common Christian attempt to ground moral absolutes in the existence of God. First, he mentions the Euthyphro Dilemma, a very old argument which can be boiled down to the following conundrum: If right and wrong depend on God’s choice, then they seem to be arbitrary (and thus not absolute), whereas if they do not depend on God’s choice, then God’s existence does not seem to be necessary to morality. James notes that a frequent rebuttal is that moral absolutes correspond to God’s character, and responds:

That doesn't seem to me to solve the problem. In fact, it seems to create a problem akin to the "fine tuning" of the laws of physics: then we have a Creator of our universe whose morality is fine tuned to the cosmic moral absolutes...

I’m not sure this is a valid response. If morality is absolute, then it would be the “cosmic moral absolutes” that were fined tuned according to God’s character, not the other way around. But more fundamentally, I think we need to distinguish between moral “absolutism” and moral “objectivity.” To say that morality is “absolute” seems to mean that certain actions (like killing babies) are always wrong, no matter what the circumstances. But to say that morality is “objective” means only that for any given circumstance, there is always a right choice.

I think it is much more helpful to think of morality as objective than to think of it as absolute. In that case, God’s character can serve as the ultimate standard for right and wrong, not because it is “fine-tuned” to an ideal set of absolute moral principles (which could then be affirmed without God), but because what is right is determined by what choice God himself would make if he were in this situation. This assumes that moral truths are not primarily “facts” which “exist” in the usual sense, but rather inherent attributes of certain choices. In that case, no fine-tuning is necessary (of God or the cosmos) for morality to be objective, all that matters is that a correct choice is possible in each case.

The value of such an approach can be seen by considering James’ second objection, which draws on a scene from the old TV show M*A*S*H. In the series finale of that show, a woman is described who smothered her child to save the lives of a bus full of people. Since “killing babies is wrong” would seem to be about as uncontroversial a moral “absolute” as you could imagine, yet it is unclear that the woman’s action would be wrong in this case, the notion of moral absolutism seems rather problematic. Indeed, even if one responds that the woman was wrong to kill her child, would that not make Abraham’s intent to sacrifice Isaac (in Genesis 22) all the more immoral? Yet that case was commanded by God, according to the Bible.

Here I fully agree with James, but must insist that while such examples make the concept of moral absolutes difficult, they actually strengthen the viability of moral objectivity. For if there is any sense in which the woman can be said to have made the right or the wrong choice – even if different circumstances would certainly result in a different answer – then morality is objective, though it is not absolute. And if this is true of difficult cases like that, how much more of less contestable cases? If it can ever be said that “killing this baby would be evil,” then morality is objective, and it is worth asking how this can be so. If the world (including every baby) is the creation of God, then the character of that God does provide a sound basis for such a view.

The difficulty that remains is in determining what choice the character of God would demand in each circumstance. For James is right that we do not have unmediated access to God’s character, nor any consistent picture of it, even in the Bible. Indeed, it is ironic how often Christians seeking to defend absolute morality are forced to defend a form of relativism in dealing with the seemingly immoral divine commands in the Old Testament. This is a serious challenge and I’ve yet to see a truly satisfying answer to it, but again, it is a greater problem for moral absolutism than for moral objectivism. If the situation today is very different than that in which God was commanding, then his character and choices might be consistent, even if his commands vary with the circumstance. More fundamentally, the Bible itself need not be a perfect reflection of God’s will for God to have a perfect will.

For ultimately, the claim that morality is objective must not be seen as the end of the debate on the nature of morality, but rather its beginning: Only if we assume that there is a right answer, can we even discuss what that answer might be.


Anonymous said...

I agree that morallity is objective rather than absolute. Whole heartedly and without question I agree. Man is the dominant creature on earth. You can attribute that to creation if you want to, or you can just assume we're really smart monkeys I guess. God doesn't interfere in court proceedings and grand jury hearings. He doesn't ever speak to anyone directly. Jesus died 2000 years ago and it is a known medical fact that a human body will not live again after it has died completely. I mean to say that your last chance for life is in the hands of a surgeon. Quite possibly the most important job on the planet. You can believe anything you want about christ raising from the dead. It doesn't change the laws of medicine and physics. Common sense should take over at that inherent point and guide you home, safely away from all of the cults and extreme christian ideology. A man or a woman on the world has got to take charge of the situation and lead like a commander in the teams. You don't have a prayer in hell in the area of making that always possible right decision, and surviving the system that man has so foolishly constructed around himself. You are your best man on and off the court, and that is the way it was and is meant to be. Stories of old are only usefull in providing symbolic templates for survival on this planet. The bible was written in the spirit of philosophy and law and mysticism. If you don't speak the language, it's not going to emmbed itself rightfully just in you. I think if Jesus Christ was who he said he was and God the father in Heaven agreed with him saying so, then he would have laid holy sh.t on the men of that time and Rome to boot. Everything I have ever been instructed on when dealings of the translation of the word are considered, has lead me to my death. Everything i have learned about being a good soldier is relatively priceless compared to what I learned from my preacher. You have to be a commander to command and interpret the holy word. It was written by the greatest people of its time, and is comparable to other great writers of other times, including today's date. It was written by men with the hopes of something consisting of a uniform nature would draw men together and not tear them to pieces. Because it is true, having been provrd over the course of history that man is a destructive force in his self. There will always be wars and talks of wars, forever and ever, until the king comes home for good. What that means to me is that he is dead for all time, but we are not dead; our children and their children and their children are not dead. So he lives in us in everything that we do and act and speak and don't speak. There is the possibility of making the correct decision every time you are faceed with a situation. Absolute morallity is death in my book and I want nothing to do with anything of the likes. I want my children to grow to be free, intelligent, common sensual, beings. I do not wish to imprison them in the twists and turns and lies and deciet, and shame based preaching that I have been spoon fed since I was a boy. When you are a boy ar a girl, you are unable psychologically, emotionally, and intellectualy, to know anything is wrong or out of place with the word and how it sits with you. I have been betrayed and lied to my whole life because some believe that no man is able to achieve greatness because we are in the death valley shadow of a man who was more than a man, more than perfect, more than correct, a sinless blameless man who committed suicide so that christians would be strong in his unfortunate lack of will power to live forever on earth with all of us, and teach us by his own hand, and scold us by his own mouth. A direct link to correct living in the realm of the almighty father, who we could never look upon or else we would be destroyed by his inner light. That is the will of Michael Eric Corbett Sr. for My two little ones. To know the truth about everything. They will not grow into men on what you are feeding them in class every day, or what you are grinning and scowling them in services on sunday and for an hour on wednesday. No, they will be great men because they have a great father, and he had a great father. It is my responsibility to educate my young ones to the fullest extent of what the law would take no mercy on them for. I am the only thing that stands between them and the fire. I had to learn all that by myself, truthfully and in all honesty. I overcame the fire because I was not afraid to burn trying.

Anonymous said...

My father is a man, not an unexplainable alien creature who lives again for all time. When I die, I am counting on not being raised up from my hole in the ground, and I am counting on not seeing my sons put in one.

Anonymous said...


majorsteve said...

Just for the sake of examination, perhaps we should consider that killing babies is always absolutely wrong, even in the case of the mother (MASH episode)who sacrificed her own child so that others might live. How do we know that the sacrifice of the entire bus might not be saving hundreds of others in some way that seems indirect for us but not with God? Consider how islamic terrorist suicide bombers rationalize their murder. Perhaps they think that killing innocent people is wrong 99.9% of the time, unless you're trying to achieve an objective that will "save other people" such as hastening the conversion of the entire world population to Islam. The problem is that they simply do not agree that it is wrong.

Ken Brown said...

Thanks for your comment. All I can say is that I think there is more to life than you seem to be allowing, but I don't expect to convince you in one day. :)

The fact that people disagree (and likely always will) on what precisely is right and wrong ensures that moral discourse will always be necessary, but the only way such discourse can have any point is if one side actually is right.

Ultimately, it seems that one's presuppositions will have a large impact on what you can accept as right or wrong, but if those presuppositions can themselves be right or wrong, then moral disagreements are, in principle, resolvable. After all, the religious claims of radical Islam are either true or false, and if the latter, then any moral claims made on their basis are also false.

majorsteve said...

If we can agree that inentionally killing babies is always wrong, every single time, then maybe we can see how our humanity will always be sinful. Killing a baby in order to save 1,000 babies is something a human might do and then later be judged by humans as "not guilty". I'm not sure God works that way but what do I know. When I was about six years old, listening to the preacher in a small southern baptist church in Marshall, TX, the preacher said "now don't be afraid to request something from God in prayer, just whatever your prayer is be faithful that it will be answered." Now having been in church for a whole six years I was quite aware that drinkin' and smokin' were huge problems that kept us on a bad footing with God. So, I bowed my little head and closed my little eyes and said "Dear Lord, please let us smoke and drink. Amen" with as much sincerity and humility and faith as I could muster. And I could've sworn I heard a voice inside me that said, "Okay". It just seemed easier for God to just go ahead and make it ok than for everyone to just quite for some reason, I mean, He's God and we are just little people born as sinners and with no hope of ever being able not to sin. Weird huh?

majorsteve said...

Ok one more point and then I have to take my daughter downtown:

If we can imagine that God would not see the action by the woman on the bus (killing her baby to save 20 people) as categorically wrong, then justifying the assasination of a doctor who performs 100 abortions per year is right around the corner.

Friend, believe me when I say that I am NOT trying to cause any "dissension among brothers" with this discussion. Just trying to sort things out. Thanks.

Ken Brown said...

The danger is in taking an exceptional and hypothetical example (like a woman having to choose between her child's life and all of their lives) and a much more usual case (like society's response to an immoral doctor). In normal society, there will almost always be much more peaceable means of preventing immorality than vigilante justice. And even if it cannot always be helped, one should never lightly "do evil that good may result."

You raise a good point though. I for one would not want to deny that the killing of an innocent child is always evil, even if “necessary.” It may, perhaps, be the right thing to do in exceptional circumstances where the alternative would be a yet greater evil, but it remains evil nonetheless. This, I guess, would be a further side-effect of the objectivity of morality. As you mentioned, the inevitable compromises that our broken world forces upon us ensure that we can never escape sin on our own.

majorsteve said...

Most people do not like hypotheticals, especially of the WWJD variety, but in the case of the woman on the bus, I can't believe that the only perfect person to ever have lived would have killed the baby, regardless of the consequences. If the entire bus was killed because of His lack of action then I think he would have just said "this is their evil, not mine" and then let the chips fall where they may.

Here are some other questions I have about there possibly being an absolute morality:

Is God Good or is Good God? By this I mean, if God is omnipotent can he then make killing babies just for fun not wrong? Is this impossible for God to do? If so, then is He then not all powerful?

Would morality exist if there were no humans on Earth? Back in the Jurassic period, for example, was there such a thing as doing something wrong? If not, then all morality exists only in the hearts and minds of humans. When a dominant male chimpanzee goes around and murders other chimps in a clan(and it has been documented that they do this), is the chimp doing something "wrong"?

Also, on a slightly different note, and certainly more bizarre, given what we've (I at least) have been taught about going to Hell and the age of accountability, isn't it strangley understandable that Andrea Pia Yates killed all of her kids before they reached the age of accountability so that they would be assured of not ever going to Hell? I mean, she could've taken the chance on letting them decide for themselves, but maybe she loved them so much that the risk was just too great, given her understanding of what Hell is. Now I personally believe she was insane and can not really even imagine someone doing something like that, but how do we extricate ourselves from this conundrum?

Ken Brown said...

Oi, you do keep me on my toes! :)

If the entire bus was killed because of His lack of action then I think he would have just said "this is their evil, not mine" and then let the chips fall where they may.

You may be right about that, but it's hard to say. Which is why it's best not to build one's moral view on such debatable examples. Most of the time we are faced with much more straightforward choices.

Is God Good or is Good God? By this I mean, if God is omnipotent can he then make killing babies just for fun not wrong?

This is the Euthyphro Dilemma all over again. God's character can only provide a valid basis for morality if it is immutable. If it is immutable, then by definition God cannot change his mind about what is right and wrong. The inability to do the logically impossible does not disprove omnipotence. Not even God can make a square circle. But I believe God gave up his omnipotence by the very act of creation, so that's neither here nor there. If we have a genuine moral choice, then not even God is free to make it for us.

Would morality exist if there were no humans on Earth?

If morality truly is objective, then it cannot depend on any human mind. But morality apart from any mind makes no sense. So unless there has always been a mind – that is, God - then morality is not objective. But if God does provide the basis for morality, then this has always been the case. I don't know whether that makes non-human animals capable of immorality or not. Perhaps it depends on whether they have a choice. An unthinking machine is not immoral, even if used for immorality.

isn't it strangely understandable that Andrea Pia Yates killed all of her kids before they reached the age of accountability so that they would be assured of not ever going to Hell?

I'm not sure I have a good answer to this, so I'll turn to my blog's namesake:

"If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of homour of by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience....

"The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.... Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it not quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.... Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way." (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pgs. 23-24)

majorsteve said...

I sure hope I'm not coming off as some kind of "madman" whatever that is.

You said "I believe God gave up his omnipotence by the very act of creation"

and I say to the Calvanist: I believe God gave up his omniscience by giving us free will. He simply doesn't know what we are going to choose. This is something I feel very strongly about and suspect that on the most basic level, which is a quantum level, it is related to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Go ahead, call me a madman! ;)

Ken Brown said...

I sure hope I'm not coming off as some kind of "madman" whatever that is.

LOL, not at all. I meant the quote to refer to Andrea Yates, not you.

I believe God gave up his omniscience by giving us free will.

I've written quite a bit on free will, but I've not fully worked out what I think about its relation to divine omniscience. Might be a good topic for a post, but I'll have to ponder the issue first (perhaps I should reread The Openness of God; it's been a while).

Super Churchlady said...

May I say this...

MajorSteve - I don't know Ken - except that I happen to really really like his blog. But...I feel that the interaction of the two of you is God-driven. MS - You may have met your intellectual match!

majorsteve said...

I'm just looking for some answers by asking questions, none of which have been, or will ever be, satisfactorily answered. It's funny, but why am I always the one asking questions? Why doesn't anyone ever ask ME anything? ;)

Ken Brown said...

Why doesn't anyone ever ask ME anything?

I guess you don't come across as the type that needs to be asked a lot of questions? You have plenty to say without them! ;)

majorsteve said...

Well, in all honesty the very reason I was so expansive in the comments sections of this blog post was, in fact, because it was in the form of a question:

"Is Morality Relative, Absolute or Neither? "

Aside from my bad habit of answering questions with more questions, I feel that the reason I am very rarely asked anything is twofold:

1) most people feel the need to demonstrate the vastness of their own knowledge, so they're more in the "teaching and talking" mode rather than the listening and learning mode, and;

2)because I do not have an extensive education, there are many who think that I have little, if anything, to contribute.

Thanks for giving me the chance to explore some thought with you.

Ken Brown said...

most people feel the need to demonstrate the vastness of their own knowledge, so they're more in the "teaching and talking" mode rather than the listening and learning mode,

Guilty as charged. Sorry; that's my bad habit!

many... think that I have little, if anything, to contribute.

Thanks for giving me the chance to explore some thought with you.

Well I'm not one of them. You've spurred my thinking in a number of ways and I hope you'll stick around to continue asking me tough questions.

God bless!