Posts Tagged ‘morality’

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Is Morality Determined By Society?

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

In my previous post, I was taking a look at a popular approach to morality known as “moral relativism”, specifically the kind of relativism which says that right and wrong are up to the individual to decide.  I had pointed out that most relativists are not consistent when it comes to actually applying their relativistic view to real life.  In the end, they attempt to relativize any values that they don’t like, while absolutizing the values that they do like.  For example, they will often tell us that modesty, sexual purity, and abstinence before marriage are only “right” for some people (it’s “relative”).  Yet, when it comes to anything that they personally find offensive such as hate, discrimination, intolerance, or homophobia, they push their morality on others by insisting that such things are wrong for everyone-  absolutely.  As I said, this is hardly in keeping with their claim that right and wrong are “up to the individual”.   When faced with the fact that they are not living consistently within their own view, the diehard relativist will often seek refuge in another brand of relativism which says that right and wrong are determined by society.  As it turns out, this approach to morality is plagued with many problems as well and it raises a number of questions.

For example, when someone says that morality is “determined by society”, the first question we need to ask is, “Which part of society?”  This is an important question for several reasons.  Before World War II, the Jews were certainly a part of German society.  So, if society determines what’s right, then how did the Jews ( being part of that society) end up in the prison camps?  Right now, even within American society, we are split almost 50/50 on everything from same-sex marriage to abortion.  As a side-note, this “split” within American culture is the reason why it’s no longer reasonable nor meaningful for a politician to claim that he or she wants to represent “the people”, because the question could always be asked, “Which people?  Those for abortion, or those against it?  Those for same-sex marriage, or those against it?”  The point is, how can a society that is so sharply divided over moral issues be said to “determine” what’s right or wrong?

There are other problems with the notion that morality is based on whatever society says.  If something is right or wrong based solely on whatever society says, then moral reformers, by definition, would be “immoral” because they are defying that which society says is “right”.  Based on that sort of reasoning, we would have to condemn German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for standing up against Hitler and the Nazi party when he spoke out against their crimes against the Jews.  We must also condemn Corrie ten Boom for going against society’s wishes by hiding and protecting Jews from the Nazis.  William Wilberforce would have been a “criminal” for defying society and fighting against the slave trade.  In our own country, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been considered “immoral” by that definition because he disobeyed racial segregation that was put into place by a society that had already determined what was “right”.  By the way, this is why I often ask the relativist if they believe that racism was wrong before the Civil Rights Movement.  If right and wrong are simply determined by a majority vote, then we lose the only foundation on which to say that racism is objectively wrong or truly wrong.  At best, we would be forced by our own twisted logic to say that racism is only “wrong” for now, but that may change in the future as society changes.  Now that is a frightening thought.

If there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, it is best learned by looking back in history at the Nuremberg trials in 1945 where the leaders of the Nazi party were put on trial for war crimes.  Throughout the proceedings, the defendants insisted that the Allies had no business trying them for war crimes because they (the Nazis) were operating according to the laws of their country-  they were doing what was “right” for their society.  If that’s true, if right and wrong are determined by society, then the International Military Tribunal would have never been in a position to bring charges against those who masterminded the Holocaust.  The only way that any society can be judged as “immoral” is on the basis of an external standard of what is right-  a Moral Law that transcends culture.

I am convinced that a Moral Law of such supreme authority and power can only come from God as the Supreme Lawgiver.  Undoubtedly, there are many people who will stridently disagree with me.  I would only remind them that in disagreeing with me, they are also disagreeing with Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, ten Boom, and Dr. King, all of whom shared my conviction.  One thing is for sure, justice would have never been served if the Nazis had succeeded in convincing the Tribunal and the rest of the world that right and wrong are determined by society.

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Posted in Christianity and Culture | 6 Comments »

An Inconvenient Truth About Morality

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

If you’ve ever listened in on a discussion involving a controversial issue where someone is perceived as promoting “traditional” or “Christian” values, chances are, you’ve heard one or more of the following responses:

“That’s not wrong for everyone, it’s only wrong for you.”

“That’s just your opinion.”

“What’s right for you may not be right for me.”

“Stop pushing your morality on everyone else.”

Whether they realize it or not, those who give such responses are expressing a particular view of morality known as “moral relativism”.  More specifically, they are referring to that view of morality which says that right and wrong are up to the individual to decide for himself or herself.

This concept of moral relativism has been accepted by so many people today that we hear it on a regular basis from the average person on the street (as we’ve just seen in the examples above).  Even though relativism has its share of problems as a moral view, I’m more interested in focusing at this time on the people who have adopted that view of morality-  that is, the moral relativist.  As we will see, those who say that morality is “relative” tend to be very inconsistent when it comes to how, when, and where they apply that principle.  Generally speaking, they will only play by that rule when it’s convenient for them to do so-  when it suits their own self-interests.  This explains why they claim to be a “relativist” when it comes to justifying their own lifestyle or behavior.   Yet, the moment someone does or says anything that offends the relativist, they will react as if they believe in a real, objective standard of morality. All of a sudden, they believe that right and wrong are not up to the individual to decide.

This double standard of the relativist is most noticeable when you listen carefully to the things they say.  For example, consider the following statements that are commonly expressed by the moral relativist:

“I was here first.

“That’s just wrong.

“Christians are such hypocrites.”

“You’re being intolerant.

“People who don’t support gay rights are spreading hate.

“Not allowing same-sex marriage is discrimination.

“She lied to me.”

“Someone stole my iPod.”

It’s important to understand that in all of these statements, the relativist is making a moral judgment-  they are condemning someone else’s behavior as “morally wrong” .  Here’s my point: as a relativist, it would make sense if they meant that such things are only wrong for them, but that’s not what they’re saying.  They’re saying that it’s wrong for others. To put it another way, they’re deciding what’s right or wrong for others, yet they claim to believe that it’s up to each person to decide for himself!

All of this reminds me of a conversation that I had a few years ago with a young lady named “Denise” (not her real name).  It was a few months before the 2008 elections and there was a proposition on the ballot in Arizona that was intended to preserve and protect the institution of marriage as one man and one woman by a “yes” vote.  Denise had been going around the neighborhood putting up posters and signs encouraging people to vote against the proposition because, as she put it, “Such a proposition is discriminating against same-sex couples.”  As I engaged her in conversation I pointed out that if we were going to get anywhere in our discussion, we must ultimately get down to the foundational question of every political, social, and moral issue:  by what standard does one determine what’s right or wrong?  The conversation at that point went as follows:

(Denise)-  “Well, you want to base it on God.”

(me)-         “I think that’s the most reasonable basis for morality.”

(Denise)-   “I don’t believe in God.”

(me)-          “It’s not a question of whether or not you ‘believe’ in God.  It’s a matter of whether or not he really exists.  There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence from both science and philosophy that God really does exist.  But just for the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that he doesn’t exist.  Let’s suppose you’re right.  So, if there is no God, then on what basis are you going to decide what’s right and what’s wrong?”

(Denise)-     “That’s easy.  It’s up to each person to decide for himself.  I can’t say what’s right or wrong for you and you can’t say what’s right or wrong for me.  I can’t push my morality on you and you can’t push your morality on me.  Like I said, it’s up to each person to decide for himself.”

(me)-        “It’s easy for you to say that, but I don’t think you can live by that.”

(Denise)-       “Why not?”

(me)-              “Because a moment ago, you said that not allowing same-sex couples to marry would be discrimination.”

(Denise)-        “It would be discrimination.”

(me)-               “So, are you saying that discrimination is wrong?”

(Denise)-         “ABSOLUTELY.  Discrimination is absolutely wrong!”

(me)-               “That’s what I don’t understand.  How can you say that discrimination, or anything else for that matter, is ‘absolutely wrong’ if you believe that it’s up to each person to decide for himself whether or NOT such things are wrong?  After all, to say that it’s ‘up to the individual to decide’ is to say that it’s up to each person to decide whether or not discrimination is wrong, whether or not intolerance is wrong, whether or not racism is wrong, etc.  Do you really want to live in a world where each person is deciding for himself or herself what’s right?”

She had no response.

Denise, just like every other relativist, finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to make moral judgments, yet lacking a foundation on which to do so.  No doubt, the late Francis Schaeffer had people such as Denise in mind when he described the relativist as having “both feet firmly planted in mid-air.”

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Posted in Christianity and Culture | 10 Comments »

Can We Be Good Without God?

Monday, July 26th, 2010

The sign on a New York City subway read, “A million New Yorkers are good without God.”   In Boston, there were signs on the city buses and subways that read, “Good without God?  Millions of Americans are.”  Billboards in Chicago carried the same message.  During the Christmas season, buses in Washington D.C. carried posters that featured someone dressed as Santa Claus with the message, “Why believe in a god?  Just be good for goodness’ sake.”  These were all part of a bold advertising campaign in 56 cities and 29 states that was launched back in 2007 by organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  Their campaign included many other slogans such as, “Imagine No Religion,”   suggesting that America would be much better off if we could somehow remove religion (Christianity in particular) from our culture.

For my purposes here, I want to focus specifically on their message that it’s not necessary to believe in God in order to be a good person.  In fact, I’m finding that more and more people in the public square are proudly proclaiming that, as an atheist, they can be good without God.  When I engage someone in conversation and they tell me that they can be a good person without believing in God, they are usually surprised to hear me say that I agree with them!  I realize that it’s not necessary to believe in God in order to be a good person.  In fact, I know of some people who do not believe in God who I would consider to be more moral than many so-called “Christians”.   So, what’s the problem?  The problem is that the person who denies God’s existence cannot make sense out of morality.  It’s important to keep in mind that the question is NOT whether one can be good without believing in God, but rather, can we be good if, in fact, there is no God.

A friend of mine who teaches Philosophy and World Religions in a local community college had invited me and a pastor from my church to come answer some questions regarding Christianity.  One of the students was a lady who identified herself as a practicing Buddhist.  Keep in mind that Buddhists do not necessarily believe that God exists.  During the Q&A, she had commented in a somewhat sarcastic tone of voice, “Look, I am a good person who does good for my community, and I don’t have to believe in your God in order to be a good person!”  In response, I said, “May I ask you a question?  You just used the word ‘good’ three times.  I need to point out to you  that as soon as you did that, you immediately introduced into this conversation some standard by which to measure what ‘good’ is and what it isn’t.  In order for that standard to make any sense, it must be an objective standard.  That is, it must exist outside both of us, and both of us must be accountable to that standard.  Since you’re the one who brought this standard into the conversation, I have to ask you: 1) What is that standard? and 2) Where did it come from-  what is it based on?”

After a long, awkward silence, she replied, “I don’t know.”  A student sitting behind her attempted to help her out.  This gentleman had leaned forward and whispered something in her ear, after which she confidently smiled and said, “I get my morality from Buddhism.”  As I was attempting to reply, another student began to speak, so I’m not sure if she (the Buddhist) could hear my next comment.  I had said to her that I’m pretty sure that if I were to ask her if Buddhist morality is better than Nazi mortality, she would most likely say, “Yes.”  But to say that one is “better” than the other is to measure both of them by some “higher” standard that exists outside both of them.  To compare the two and to say that one is better than the other is to say that one comes closer to meeting that standard than does the other. But to acknowledge some “Ultimate Standard” is to say that there exists a supreme moral law-  this requires a supreme Lawgiver.

Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason makes an insightful observation about this.  He points out that when someone says that they don’t have to believe in God in order to be a good person, it’s like saying that they don’t have to believe in authors in order to read books.  While that may be true, they certainly cannot make sense of books existing apart from authors, nor can they make sense of an objective moral law existing apart from a moral Lawgiver.

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Posted in Ethics | 107 Comments »

The Question of God’s Existence- Why Does it Matter?

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Several years ago, I wrote the following words in the flyleaf of my Bible: “If there is no God, then nothing really matters.  If there is a God, nothing else matters.”  I don’t recall where I heard it, but as far as I’m concerned this one statement covers all the bases in very few words- it really is the bottom line.  Notice that the question is not whether one believes in God, but rather, is there really a God? Does He really exist? This is the ultimate question, isn’t it?  It has to be the ultimate question because absolutely everything about your life and mine depends upon the answer to that question, whether the answer is “yes” or “no.”  All of the important, relevant questions that we ask about our lives are ultimately grounded in that question.  Where did we come from?  How did we get here?  Are we here by the purposive act of a Creator Who made us, or are we simply the product of random, blind forces of nature?  What is the purpose and meaning of life?  IS there any purpose or meaning to life?  What is the basis for ethics and morality?  On what basis do we determine what is right or wrong?  What about truth?  Is truth relative, or is there absolute truth?  If so, is there any way that we can discover it?  What happens to us when we die?  Does life simply terminate at the grave or will we survive the grave?  If we survive the grave what will become of us?  Where will we go after we die?  As I said, the question of God’s existence is the ultimate question.

When it comes to this question, there are many today who would tell us that it’s rather pointless for us to even ask such a question since there’s no way that we can ever really know.  Others would insist that such a question is a complete waste of time since we cannot know anything about God.  But to say that we can’t know anything about God is not only a cop-out, it’s self-contradictory.  After all, the person who says that we can’t know anything about God is actually claiming to “know” a lot of things about God!

For instance, they may be assuming that God is some “impersonal force” that lacks the ability to communicate with us.  Either that, or they are assuming that even if God is a personal Being Who can communicate with us, He is either too distant to do so, or else He simply doesn’t care to do so.  They are assuming that  none of the world’s religions nor any of the religious texts within those religions could ever be seriously considered as the means by which God has attempted to communicate with us.  And finally, they are assuming that God has not taken the initiative to reveal Himself to us in any way through the physical, material world that He created.

As I said, the question of whether or not God really exists is, by far, the most important question that anyone could ever ask.  With so much at stake, we dare not brush it aside or ignore it on the assumption that we “cannot know”.  Not only can we know, I am convinced that the answer to that question has been clearly revealed to us and is available to anyone and everyone who is willing to approach the evidence with an open mind.

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Posted in Theology | 53 Comments »

Why NOT Discuss Politics and Religion?

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

It’s election time again which means that it’s time for voters to begin the process of weighing out the candidates as well as the issues that are up for discussion.  Once again, friends, family members, and co-workers will engage in discussions that tend to come up during a political year.  Unfortunately, conversations of that nature have a tendency to stir up people’s emotions and before long, what started out as a civil discussion often turns into a heated argument.  Eventually, some well-meaning person listening in will try to ‘put out the fire’ by saying, “You see?  That’s exactly why I say that you should never discuss politics and religion!”  But even though people often say such things, there is a very real sense in which everyone brings politics and religion into their normal, day-to-day conversations and they don’t even realize it.

Take religion, for example.  I often hear ‘unbelievers’ say, “Don’t bring religion into this!”  (By that, they usually mean “Don’t bring Christianity or Christian values into this!”)  But the fact of the matter is that even those who would consider themselves “non-religious” have a ‘religious’ view of their own.  The reason that they may not think so is because most people today think of religion as ‘a belief in God’, but such a simple definition is inadequate because there are some religions (such as Buddhism) that do not necessarily believe in God.  So, that brings us back to the question, “What is a religion?”  A religion is fundamentally a worldview, a perspective, a set of assumptions, a ‘lens’ if you will, through which a person looks at everything in life in order to try and explain how all of life fits together in a coherent and comprehensive way.  It is a ‘framework’ through which a person is trying to make sense of the world around them.  This is extremely important to understand because it tells us that everyone, whether they realize it or not, is operating on a set of beliefs (a worldview).  This means that everyone, including the atheist, is ‘religious’ in that sense.  Furthermore, it tells us that ALL views expressed are ‘religiously motivated’ because they are an expression of that person’s worldview.  In other words, any time an individual gives their perspective on a matter in almost any conversation they are, in fact, bringing their religion into the conversation just as much as anyone else!

Even political discussions are not entirely avoidable.  Why?  Because political issues are ultimately about moral principles.  They have to be.  If you don’t believe me, think for a moment about the kind of issues that we typically refer to as ‘political issues’.  Most political issues involve that which is right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, fair or unfair- all of which are moral issues.  Even the questions of how and why people should be treated equally are moral questions.  In other words, by what objective moral standard did we determine that it is right (morally) to treat people equally and that it would be immoral to not treat people equally?

So, just as with religion, everyone has a moral point of view and they are asserting their moral point of view every time they use words such as ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘fair’, ‘unfair’, ‘just’, ‘unjust’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘should’, ‘shouldn’t’, ‘ought’, ‘ought not’, (etc.).   It’s unavoidable.  So, the next time you hear someone insist that people shouldn’t get into discussions about politics and religion, you may want to point out to them that they just did!

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Posted in Christianity and Culture | 6 Comments »

Is Happiness the Bottom Line?

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

“Everyone should have the right to do whatever makes them happy.”  How many times have you heard someone make a statement like that?  In fact, there is a good chance that you have even said it yourself.  Although it is not a new idea by any means it is, nevertheless, enjoying a great deal of popularity among our culture today.  It’s not hard to understand why it’s such a popular idea.  After all, who among us doesn’t wish to be happy?  But while this idea may sound reasonable and perfectly harmless at a glance, just a few minutes of thinking it over and following it to its logical conclusion exposes just how harmful this idea can really be.

What I find most disturbing is the number of people these days who have bought into this idea with such reckless abandon that in their insatiable thirst for happiness, they are apparently willing to overlook and even justify the most horrific examples of such faulty thinking.  For example, in three separate conversations that I had with three different students last year, I asked each of them this question, “When it comes to making decisions in your life about what is right or wrong, what do you base it on?”  They all predictably answered, “I base it on doing whatever makes me happy.”  I then asked each of them, “When you consider the events of the Holocaust and the fact that Hitler was exterminating millions of people and worked toward building a master race in the pursuit of his happiness, would you say that what Hitler did was right?”   In each conversation, the student looked at me and said without any hesitation, “Yes.  I guess it was right for him if it made him happy.”  In one of those conversations, I responded by saying, “I really do hope that you’re just being stubborn or that you’re just messing with me because if I thought for one moment that you were actually serious about your answer, I would have every reason to be afraid of you…..and so should everyone else.”

Recently when I was addressing a high school youth group regarding some cultural issues involving sexual promiscuity, I brought up the question of whether or not people should simply “do whatever makes them happy”.  Not wishing to risk using Hitler as my example again, I used the examples of  a student who steals from his classmates and a pedophile who molests children, both of which are examples of someone who is pursuing their own happiness.  One of the girls in the group raised an objection.  She pointed out to me that it really wasn’t fair for me to compare them, because in the case of the pedophile and the thief, they are both pursuing their happiness at the expense of someone else or doing harm to someone else, whereas in the matter of sexual promiscuity between two consenting people, this is not the case at all (although that is even debatable).

I responded to her by saying that I wasn’t trying to compare them, but rather, my intent was to point out some of the dangers of the “do whatever makes you happy” mentality.  I then asked her if she at least agreed with me that molesting children and stealing from someone is wrong.  She definitely agreed.  I further asked her if she agreed with me that we cannot and must not go around these days “throwing the door wide open”  by suggesting that “everyone has the right to do anything that makes them happy” -  that for us to make such broad, sweeping and open-ended statements would be both irresponsible and destructive.  Again, she agreed.  Next, I  asked her if it was reasonable to conclude from this that in the pursuit of one’s happiness, there has to be a limit.  She said, “Yes.”  I finally asked her, “When we say that there is a ‘limit’, aren’t we really saying that there must be a moral boundary line?” – She agreed.

This, of course, leaves us with the most important question of all: When it comes to drawing the boundary lines on ANY issue in life, who ultimately decides where those boundary lines are to be drawn?  Is it up to man, or is it up to God? If we make the mistake of leaving it up to man, I have no doubt that we will end up opening the door to a world that none of us will be able to endure.

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Posted in Ethics | 2 Comments »

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  • In today's world, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to matters of truth, meaning, morality, our origin, and our destiny. The purpose of Renewed Thoughts is to bring clarity to such issues by examining them in light of a Biblical worldview, using the tools of science, philosophy, and critical thinking.