By: Norman L. Geisler
Can a system of ethics be sustained apart from a belief in moral absolutes? And, can a belief in moral absolutes be sustained apart from a biblical world view? Norman L. Geisler
provides compelling answers to these questions in this highly readable survey of basic issues and options in Christian ethics.
Though non-Christians have offered various relativistic definitions of moral “right,” all fall short of an adequate basis for making ethical decisions. Christians define “right” in terms of what God wills. What God wills is rooted in His moral nature. And since His moral nature does not change, it follows that moral obligations flowing from His nature are absolute (they are binding everywhere on everyone). When two or more absolutes come into conflict, the Christian is responsible for obeying the greater commandment. The Christian is not held guilty for not following the lesser of two (or more) conflicting commandments.
Once while in Australia for a speaking engagement, I was engaged in dinner conversation with a medical student. “What is the subject of your lecture series?” he asked. “Ethics,” I replied. “What is that?” he inquired. I took a moment to recover from my shock. Here was a bright young man about to enter a profession involving some of the major ethical decisions of our time who did not even know what ethics was!
I said softly and gently, so as not to offend him for his ignorance, “Ethics deals with what is right and what is wrong.” I confess I felt a bit like the famed football coach Vince Lombardi, who once, after his Green Bay Packers played a particularly inept game, allegedly told the battered team, “This is a football!” Perhaps we cannot get too basic. In view of this, I will begin with some basic definitions.
Absolutes- DEFINING WHAT IS “RIGHT”
Many non-Christian thinkers have offered definitions of moral “right” and “wrong.” All fall short of an adequate basis for making ethical decisions. But each offers the occasion for insight into the true nature of ethics.
Absolutes- Might Is Right
Thrasymachus, the ancient Greek philosopher, believed that right is found in might. According to this position, “justice is the interest of the stronger party.” What is morally right is defined in terms of who has the power. This is often understood as political power, such as Machiavelli believed. However, it could mean physical, psychological, or other kinds of power.
The might-is-right theory contains several fatal flaws, but the most fatal is this: it fails to recognize the difference between power and goodness. It is possible to be powerful without being good, and it is possible to be good without being powerful. Evil tyrants from Nero to Stalin are sufficient evidence to refute the belief that might makes right. History provides ample testimony that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Absolutes- Morals Are Mores
Another ethical theory suggests that what is morally right is determined by the culture to which one belongs. Ethics is defined in terms of what is ethnically acceptable. What the community says constitutes what is morally right for its members. Cultural practices are ethical commands. Whatever similarity may exist between moral codes in different social groups is simply due to common needs and aspirations, not to any universal moral prescriptions.
The first difficulty with this position is what is called the “is-ought” fallacy. Simply because someone is doing something does not mean one ought to do so. Otherwise, racism, rape, cruelty, and murder would automatically be morally right. Further, if each individual community’s mores are right, then there is no way to adjudicate conflicts between different communities. For unless there are moral principles above all communities, there is no moral way to solve conflicts between them. Finally, if morals are relative to each social group, then even opposite ethical imperatives can be viewed as right. But contradictory imperatives cannot both be true. Everything cannot be right, certainly not opposites.
Absolutes- Man Is the Measure
The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras claimed “man is the measure of all things.” Understood in the individual sense, this means each person is the standard for right and wrong. The morally right thing to do is what is morally right for me. And what is right for me may be wrong for another and vice versa.
This theory is morally unacceptable because it implies that an act can be right for someone even if it is cruel, hateful, or tyrannical. Further, if this theory were put in practice, society would be rendered inoperative. There can be no true community where there is no common core of basic values. If everyone literally “did his own thing,” chaos would result. Finally, this theory does not tell us which aspect of human nature should be taken as the measure of all things. One cannot simply beg the question by taking only the “good aspects.” For that implies some standard of good beyond individuals or the race by which one can tell what is good and what is evil in human nature or activity.
Absolutes- The Human Race Is the Basis of Right
In an attempt to avoid the radical individualism and ethical solipsism of the previous position, some posit that the human race as a whole is the standard for good. According to this theory, the part does not determine what is right for the whole, but the whole determines what is right for the part. In brief, humankind is the measure of all things.
It should be noted, however, that even the whole race could be wrong. Whole communities, like Jonestown, have committed mass suicide. What if the majority of the human race decided that suicide was the best “solution” to the world’s problems? Should dissenters be forced to conform? Further, the human race is changing, as are its ethical practices. Child sacrifice was once commonly approved, as was slavery. Today we like to think the race has a better moral standard. But better implies a best or an objective standard outside the race by which the progress can be measured. The fact is, we cannot gauge the moral level of the human race unless there is a perfect standard outside it by which it can be measured.
Absolutes- Right Is Moderation
The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle believed morality is found in moderation. The right course of action is the “golden mean” or moderate course of action between two extremes. Temperance, for example, is the mean between indulgence and insensibility. Pride is the moderate course between vanity and humility. Courage is the ideal between fear and aggression.
Certainly moderation is often the wisest course. Even the Bible says, “Let your moderation be known to all men” (Phil. 4:5). The question is not whether moderation is often the proper expression of morality but whether it is the proper definition (or essence) of morality.
Several reasons suggest strongly that moderation is not the essence of what is good. First, many times the right thing is the extreme thing to do. Emergencies, actions taken in self-defense, and wars against aggression are cases in point. In these situations moderate actions are not always the best ones. As well, some virtues obviously should not be expressed in moderate amounts. One should not love only moderately. Neither should one be moderately grateful, truthful, or generous. Further, there is no universal agreement on what is moderate. Aristotle, for example, considered humility a vice (an extreme); Christians believe it is a virtue. Moderation is at best only a general guide for action, not a universal ethical rule.
Absolutes- Right Is What Brings Pleasure
Although Epicurus himself was more moderate, some Epicureans (4th century B.C. and following) were hedonists who claimed that what brings pleasure is morally right, and what brings pain is morally wrong. Since few things are all pleasure or all pain, however, the formula for determining what is good is more complicated. The good, they claim, is what brings the most pleasure and least pain to the greatest number of people.
Among the difficulties with this theory is that not all pleasures are good (e.g., sadism), and not all pain is bad (e.g., warning pains). Then, too, this theory does not specify what kind of pleasure should be used as the basis of the test. (There are physical, psychological, spiritual, and other kinds of pleasure.) Further, are we to use immediate pleasure (in this life) or ultimate pleasure (in the next life) as the test? Finally, should our gauge be pleasure for the individual, the group, or the race? In short, this theory raises more questions than it answers.
Absolutes- Right Is the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
In view of the problems just mentioned, utilitarians define moral rightness in terms of what brings the greatest good in the long run. Some have understood the meaning of good quantitatively — that is, the greatest amount of pleasure. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) fits into this category.
Others, such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), viewed it qualitatively — that is, the greatest kind of pleasure for the greatest number.
One problem with the utilitarian view relates to deciding how “good” should be understood (e.g., quantitatively or qualitatively). Moreover, it begs the question to say that moral right is what brings the greatest good. For then we must ask what is “good”? Either right and good are defined in terms of each other, which is circular reasoning, or they must be defined according to some standard beyond the utilitarian process.
Further, no one can accurately predict what will happen in the long run. Hence, for all practical purposes, a utilitarian definition of good is useless. We must still fall back on something else to determine what is good now, in the short run.
Absolutes- Right Is What Is Desirable for Its Own Sake
Some ethicists have defined good as that which is desirable for its own sake, in and of itself.
Moral value is viewed as an end, not a means. It is never to be desired for the sake of anything else. For example, no one should desire virtue as a means of getting something else (such as riches or honor). Virtue should be desired for its own sake.
This view has obvious merit, but it raises several questions. First, it does not really define the content of a morally good act but simply designates the direction one finds good (namely, in ends). Moreover, it is easy to confuse what is desired and what is desirable (i.e., what ought to be desired). This leads to another criticism. Good cannot simply be that which is desired (as opposed to what is really desirable), since we often desire what is evil. Finally, what appears to be good in itself is not always really good. Suicide seems to be good to someone in distress but really is not good. It does not solve any problem; it is the final cop-out from solving the problem.
Absolutes- Right Is Indefinable
Despairing of any hope of specifying what is morally right, some thinkers simply insist that good is indefinable. G. E. Moore (1873–1958), for instance, argued that every attempt to define good commits the “naturalistic fallacy.” This fallacy results from assuming that because pleasure can be attributed to good they are identical. Moore contended that all we can say is that “good is good” and nothing more.
Attempting to define good in terms of something else makes that something the intrinsic good.
There is some merit in this view. There can be only one ultimate good, and everything else must be subordinated to it. However, the view as such is inadequate. First, it provides no content for what good means. But if there is no content to what is right or wrong, then there is no way to distinguish a good act from an evil one. Further, just because the good cannot be defined in terms of something more ultimate does not mean it cannot be defined at all. For example, a morally good God could create morally good creatures like Himself. In such a case, even though God is the ultimate moral good, nonetheless. His goodness could be understood from the moral creatures He has willed to be like Himself.
Absolutes- Good Is What God Wills
One final alternative is to define good in terms of what God wills. This view is sometimes called the divine command theory of ethics. Whatever action God specifies as a good action is a good action. Conversely, if God specifies an action to be evil, then it is evil. Thus, moral good is both ultimate and specifiable. It is ultimate because it comes from God. It is specifiable since it can be found in His revelation to humankind.
There are two objections often raised against this view. First, it is alleged that it is a form of authoritarianism. This objection, however, is valid only if the authority is less than ultimate. That is, if any finite creature professed to have this ultimate authority, then we could rightly cry “authoritarianism.” However, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that the Ultimate Authority has ultimate authority. If an absolutely perfect God exists, then by His very nature He is the ultimate standard for what is good and what is not.
The second objection argues that defining good in terms of God’s will is arbitrary. This objection applies, however, only to a voluntaristic view of good, not to an essentialistic view. A voluntarist believes that something is good simply because God wills it. An essentialist, on the other hand, holds that God wills something because it is good in accordance with His own nature. This form of the divine command view of ethics escapes these criticisms and forms the basis for a Christian ethic.
Absolutes- CHRISTIAN ETHICS IS ROOTED IN GOD’S UNCHANGING NATURE
The Christian view of right and wrong is neither arbitrary nor groundless. It is not arbitrary because what God wills is in accord with His nature as absolute good. It is not groundless because it is rooted in what never changes, namely, God’s immutable essence: “I the Lord change not” (Mal. 3:6); “There is no shadow of change” with God (James 1:17). Even though the universe will change, “You [God] are the same,” declared the psalmist (Ps. 102:27). Although God is free to act according to the dictates of His own essential goodness, He is not “free” to act contrary to it. Likewise, His commands will always be rooted in His immutable nature as the ultimate Good.
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