A Solid Foundation For Objective Morality
In the conclusion to my critique of Mark Passio’s documentary on the “Science Of Natural Law,” I said I’d write a follow-up, so it’s high time I keep my word. Please accept my sincere apologies for having taken so long! It is my intention here to move away from criticism and into a more positive reconstruction of what I believe to be a solid foundation for objectivity in ethics. But first, please allow me to offer a brief recapitulation, so as to keep in mind what it is that I’m offering an alternative to.
In his documentary, Mr. Passio made the claim very emphatically that there is such a thing as an objective ethic. He asserted that this ethic is immutable (that it does not change), and that it is binding (that everyone everywhere is bound by it and subject to it, whether we like it or not). I believe he is exactly right about this, but I don’t believe that his system is able to justify this claim, and that is what I sought to show in my previous essay. It was not his definition of morality that I took issue with, but rather his system’s ability to justify his claim to objectivity. Why should I care about Mark Passio’s opinion? Why should I submit to his system instead of inventing a system of my own? What right does he have to impose his definition of morality upon everyone else?
Passio seems to understand the need for transcendent justification, so he appeals to “cause and effect.” He knows that, in order for morality to be immutable and binding, it needs some authority behind it that is greater than his, or mine, or yours. But the law of causality (like all of physics) is merely descriptive. It simply presents an analytic truth: that every effect must have an antecedent cause, but it has nothing to say about how sentient beings ought to behave. Laws of physics simply describe the God-given qualities intrinsic to matter and energy; ethical laws, on the other hand, tell us what sorts of choices we are required to make. And this, of course, prompts some very important questions, such as: “required by whom?” and “how can we know what these ethical requirements are?” and “what right does anyone have to require ethical obligation of anyone else?” In other words: “how can we escape the trap of subjectivity?”
An appeal to the conscience, or the heart, cannot escape this trap. Whose conscience? Whose heart? Why not Adolf Hitler’s, or Anthony Fauci’s, or Klaus Schwab’s? An appeal to reason cannot escape this trap. Whose definition of reason? Why not the lunatic’s? How do you know that your mind is sound, and not his? By whose standard? What gives you the right to impose your morality of rationality on him, and not the other way around? An appeal to experience cannot escape this trap. Whose experience? Experience can be very deceptive, and often leads people in all sorts of varied and conflicting directions. An appeal to consensus cannot escape this trap. There are always dissenters; what right does a majority have to impose its will upon a minority? How can we know whether or not the majority is objectively right? It could be a tiny minority of people who are actually getting it right; the majority could be all wrong.
It simply isn’t true that everyone agrees about even the most rudimentary definitions of morality, like “do not initiate harm.” I have personally argued with people who claim to believe that might makes right, who believe that they have the right to abuse others, and step on them as they claw their way to the top. Lisa and I have a good friend in Pennsylvania who has a neighbor who is a prepper of a different sort. He says “I’m a tough guy, and I have a lot of guns. If things get rough, I’ll just steal whatever I need from people like you, and kill anyone who gets in my way.” We might not like his ethic, but what right do any of us have to condemn it as objectively wrong? He has his opinion and we have ours.
In fact, an argument of this sort was presented by the defense at Nuremberg. In one of the most well-known trials, twenty-four Nazi leaders were being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The defense team argued that their clients hadn’t committed any crimes: their actions had been perfectly ethical according to their own culture’s norms. What right did we have to impose our code of ethics upon them? They had their own code of ethics, and they had not violated it. Robert Jackson, Chief Counsel for the United States, provided an answer that led to a successful (and just) prosecution. He argued that there is such a thing as an objective ethic, and therefore an objective definition of human rights and crimes against humanity. He appealed to what he called “a law above the law,” to which all cultures, including Germany’s, are accountable.
So, what makes us think that morality is immutable and universally binding? How can we escape the snare of nihilism? I contend that there is only one way: we need to appeal to an ethical standard that transcends human subjectivity. Robert Jackson was right: we need “a law above the law.” But even this does not go quite far enough.
In Defense Of Objectivity
Imagine an atheist philosophy professor who is philosophically consistent enough to also be a nihilist. He claims to believe that there are no absolute norms of ethics – that we are each free to chart our own individualistic path through the pastoral landscape of morality. “You may choose what is right for you,” says he, “and I will choose what is right for me. There is no such thing as objective right or wrong.”
To celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary he takes his wife out for a pleasant night on the town: an exquisite meal at an upscale restaurant, followed by a beautiful rendering of Beethoven’s sixth by the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium. The evening’s magic, however, takes an abrupt turn when they arrive home to find the back door forced and their house ransacked and plundered by burglars.
How might we expect our nihilistic friend to respond? I doubt he would simply shrug his shoulders and say “there’s nothing wrong with this. There is no such thing as right or wrong.” I expect he would be indignant; he would no doubt feel the sting of having been violated, as well he should. He was violated.
Suppose he calls the police, demanding justice. But the police show up to say “look, I don’t even know why we’re here. We’re nihilists too. There’s nothing wrong with what these so-called burglars did. There is no right or wrong; there is no such thing as justice.” How would he respond to this?
Suppose the same man has bought a new car, and is selling the old one for $5,000. I’m interested in buying it, so we come to terms, and I write him a check for ten cents, insisting that full payment has been made, on the grounds that, according to my truth, ten cents is $5,000. Suppose he takes my check to the bank, expecting a full $5,000 to be transferred from my account to his…
I think you get my point. It’s cheap and easy to keep up the relativistic facade in the safety of the lecture hall, but even the most religiously devoted nihilist becomes an absolutist in a hurry as soon as his worldview is challenged in the real world. We all know what wrong looks like when we’re the ones being wronged.
If you want to see a nihilist turn red, then go ahead and put his/her ideals to the test and see what happens. During the height of the COVID “mandates” (and related madness) I walked into a NAPA store to see about having a hydraulic hose made up. As soon as I entered, the manager called out “could I interest you in a mask?”.
“No, thank you,” replied I. “I’m already wearing one.”
She insisted that I wasn’t, so I seized the opportunity for a little philosophy lesson. I asked “aren’t you aware that truth is defined purely subjectively? You can have your truth and I can have mine. For example, if I were to tell you that I identify as a woman, then you would have to accept this as true, despite all external appearances.”
She wholeheartedly agreed. So I told her that I identify as someone who is currently wearing a mask, and that she needs to accept this as truth. The conversation went on a few sentences longer, and I (very politely) left her with no philosophical ground on which to stand. She responded (rather impolitely) by attempting to leave me with no physical ground on which to stand: she commanded me to leave her store, garnishing this command with certain choice words that were no doubt intended to add emphasis. I made it clear (again, very politely) that I would be delighted to leave as soon as I had concluded my business.
Here is another true story: the son of a well-known Christian theologian (R.C. Sproul) was doing some student teaching on the university level a number of years ago. He was lecturing on ethics and actually dared to publicly make the claim that there are absolutes in the realm of morality. As we might expect, he was called into the Dean’s office, where he was told “we don’t teach that sort of thing here.”
“What you’re saying, then,” replied R.C. Jr., “is that I shouldn’t teach that there is any such thing as objective ethics.”
“That’s right” affirmed the Dean.
R.C. Jr. took another stab at making his point. He said “please bear with me. I just want to make sure I understand you. What you’re saying is that it would be wrong to teach that there is any such thing as objective ethics.”
The Dean still didn’t get it, so Sproul tried one more time. He said “what you’re saying is that it would be wrong to teach that there is any such thing as wrong.”
The Dean leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment, and then had the humility and (objective) virtue to respond “you’re right; relativism is a problem. Go ahead and teach whatever you like.”
To deny the reality of objectivity is to commit philosophical suicide. Such a denial depends entirely upon the absolutes that it denies the existence of. Epistemological nihilism says “it’s true that there is no truth;” ethical nihilism says “it’s wrong to say that there is any such thing as wrong.” Even the most religously devoted nihilist finds himself having to give up the charade as soon as he steps into the real world.
Preconditions For Objective Ethics (And Epistemology)
What must exist in order for there to be any such thing as objective morality? What preconditions are necessary to justify the claim that this is, in fact, a world which is governed by absolutes, both in the realms of epistemology (the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge) and ethics (the branch of philosophy that defines morality)?
These are very important questions. Most people go through life not thinking particularly deeply about things of this sort, and of course, that is perfectly understandable. Most people have no idea how dependent their entire worldview is upon a whole host of faith-based assumptions and presuppositions. Perhaps, if you would like, I’ll write more about this in the future. But for now, I’ll focus on the preconditions that I’m convinced are necessary for the justification of objective morality.
First, let’s dive into a concept called “normativity.” Norms are standards by which rightness or wrongness is defined. For the purposes of this essay we’re concerned mainly with ethical norms (standards by which right and wrong behavior is defined). Norms impose what we could call “oughtness” or “shouldness.” How ought we to think? How should we behave? Any condition that finds itself to be consistent with the norm is said to be “normal;” any concept that defines the norm is “normative.”
Ethics depends upon normativity. In fact, to say that morality is normative is nothing more than a simple analytic truth: something that is true by definition (much like saying that thought is cognitive). For example, to say that one person should not steal what rightfully belongs to someone else is to offer a normative proposition. It is the “should not” that makes it normative. Without this normativity there can be no concept of morality. The whole point of ethics is to tell us what we should or should not do, and this makes it, by definition, normative. Without norms by which rightness or wrongness is defined, it would be impossible for there to be any such thing as morality.
Of course, we cannot escape subjectivity simply by accepting the fact that there are such things as ethical norms. Just because something is accepted as “normal” does not mean that it is objectively right. A very important question remains: if there is such a thing as objective morality, then who gets to define the ethical norms by which this morality is defined? I could dream up my own set of norms, and you could come up with yours, and the two could look very different. As mentioned above (and in my previous essay) an appeal to the heart, or the mind, or majority rule, or experience, or any other aspect of the human condition, cannot escape this trap of subjectivity. My human condition and yours could lead us in entirely different directions and to entirely different conclusions, and neither of us would have any higher claim than the other. You would be left with your subjective morality, and I with mine.
In order for morality to be universally binding, it requires justification that transcends human subjectivity: it requires, as Robert Jackson said, “a law above the law.” This means, then, that for morality to be more than just a matter of opinion, it requires some higher authority behind it. None of us have any right to invent and impose a universally binding code of ethics; absolute law requires an absolute law-giver.
I would find it very comfortable if I could just stop right here, but I’m afraid that my commitment to objective truth (and even more, to the source of that truth) will not permit that. In order to truly justify the existence of objective morality, we need to go a bit further.
First, we need to spend a few minutes considering the impossibility of finding solid justification for normativity in anything other than a personal source. Please allow me to explain by way of example. In the town of Unity, on route 202, there is a black and white sign that reads “SPEED LIMIT 25.” The message that this sign presents is normative. It isn’t merely describing the average speed of motorists who pass by, but imposing obligation: it is telling us how fast we aresupposed to drive.
But, what makes the proposition on the speed limit sign normative? Why should we submit to it? Because there is personal authority behind it. Someone has decided that reckless driving can be a cause of negligently initiating harm, so parameters of safe travel have been established. (Whether or not we agree with the particular definition of these parameters is, for the sake of this argument, irrelevant).
Suppose there were no personal authority behind the speed limit sign. Suppose that, over millions of years, through the unguided erosion of wind and rain, and variations of cold and heat, and seismic shifts in the tectonic plates, and various chemical combinations and reactions, and what-have-you else, the sign simply emerged out of the ground all by itself by blind chance. (Ridiculous, I know, but no more so than the idea of a blind-chance creation of the infinitely more complex universe.) Would the speed limit sign still be normative? Of course not – no more than any other inanimate roadside object, like a rock or a tree. It is not the sign itself that imposes obligation, but the authority of the ones who put it there. Normativity presupposes personal authority behind it, and without normativity there can be no concept of morality. Morality is, by definition, normative. In short, without normativity there is no morality; without personalauthority there is no normativity. Morality, then, is utterly dependent upon personal authority.
But we still haven’t escaped subjectivity. I’m a person. Why can’t I be my own personal authority? Why can’t I decide for myself what the parameters of safe travel should be? That there is personal authority behind an ethical norm does not necessarily mean that it is immutable and universally binding. I can still ask the grand epistemological question: “who says?”.
In order for morality to be universally binding, the authority behind it needs to be, not only personal, but also transcendent; the ethical norms upon which objective morality is built must be absolute. Without a personal law-giver who transcends human subjectivity, we cannot justify any concept of objective morality.
No, I’m afraid we still haven’t escaped the trap of subjectivity. To acknowledge that there is a personal law-giver who transcends human subjectivity is not enough. We also need to know who He is. Here is where the defense at Nuremberg dropped the ball; they were clever, but not quite clever enough. They could have pushed their defense a little further. They could have argued thus: “so, you claim that you are appealing to a transcendent law-giver (a ‘law above the law’), and therefore are escaping relativism, and so are on solid ethical ground from which you can justly condemn our clients. Fine. You can have your ‘law above the law.’ But we are appealing to our own concept of a transcendent law-giver. We have our own ‘law above the law,’ and he finds nothing wrong with what our clients did. In fact, according to our ‘law above the law,’ what they did was virtuous. They were establishing a master race, and offering a ‘final solution, and bringing in a new and better age for humanity. They were ridding the world of useless eaters who, according to our law-giver’s ethical norms, had no right to live. What right do you have to force your ‘law above the law’ on us? We appeal to a different higher power!”
Anyone can attempt to justify any action, good or evil, by appealing to the will of some higher power. In fact, World history is well-marked by attempts to justify all sorts of heinousness on these grounds: European crusaders who raped Islamic girls, claiming to be doing “God’s will;” Spanish inquisitors who murdered Central American natives because they refused to convert to an aberration of Christianity; Canaanite worshipers of Molech who burned their own children to death as act of obeisance to their god, etc.
To attempt to justify objective morality by appealing to a subjective concept of some “higherpower” only pushes the nihilism a little farther back. Whose definition of a higher power? Why not the Spanish Conquistadors’ false god? Why not Molech, or Dagon, or Baal? Any attempt to justify objective morality by appealing to a subjective concept of a higher power leaves ample room for this justifiable response: “I believe in a higher power too, but my higher power tells me that initiating harm against others is perfectly acceptable, provided that I benefit from it. Go force your morality on someone else! Leave me and my higher power alone!”
It amazes me how normal it is in our culture to choose a worldview as if we are window shopping. If a particular idea is agreeable, then we accept it and add it to our pantheon of beliefs; if it is disagreeable, then we reject it. All the while virtually no heed is paid to the most fundamental question of all: what makes me think that this truth-claim is actually true? If not, then no matter how much I like it, it is of no real value. This might sound elementary (it is, in fact), but we cannot escape the trap of subjectivity by each inventing our own custom-made God-concept. To do so might make us feel a little better about imposing our own moral precepts on others, but we are left with no legitimate right to do so; we are still hopelessly mired in ethical nihilism, with no hope of finding objective morality.
So, without a personal law-giver who transcends human subjectivity, who actually exists, there can be no hope of finding sound justification for objectivity in the realms of ethics or epistemology. But even this is not enough. This transcendent law-giver has to have revealed His moral law to us. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is an omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent, immutable God who created us and has the right to impose moral obligation upon us. Now we have solid justification for absolute normativity. But suppose, too, that this God kept Himself hidden from us: we have absolutely no clue who He is, or what He expects of us; He has left us entirely in the dark. If this were the case, then it would be right to say that there is such a thing as objective morality, but we could only speculate about the particular definition of it. Your opinion and mine could differ significantly, and neither would hold any more validity than the other. Conversations of this sort would be about the best we could do:
Me: “I really don’t think you should take my wallet. That would be wrong!”
Thief: “Who says? What right do you have to impose your concept of morality on me?”
Me: “No such right, of course. My opinion about morality has no more validity than yours. But there is a God who is both personal and transcendent! He is the one who imposes moral precepts upon you!”
Thief: “Granted. But where has this God revealed His preceptive will to us?”
Me: “I know of no such revelation. But I’m quite sure that He would not want you to steal my wallet.”
Thief: “Why not? I could use the money, and it’s my opinion that God cares more about me than He does about you.”
Me: “I disagree with your opinion. In fact, I disagree so strongly that if you persist, I will feel justified in defending myself!”
Thief: “Whoa! Wait a minute! If you do that then I might get hurt! I’m quite sure that God would not want you to hurt me.”
Me: “I don’t think that God would mind, provided that the harm that I inflict upon you is a defensive response to your initiating harm against me.”
Thief: “I disagree with that opinion. You have no right to harm me, and I have every right to your wallet. Until God reveals Himself to us, it’s your opinion against mine….”
And so the conversation could go ad nauseam, lost in a hopeless maze of speculation, conjecture, opinion, subjectivity, and nihilism. Without a personal law-giver there can be no normativity, and without normativity there can be no morality. Without a transcendent law-giver there can be no ethical objectivity. Morality would be reduced to a matter of personal preference, and mine would be no more or less valid than yours, or the narcissistic thief’s. Without clear revelation from a personal, transcendent law-giver, we are no less lost in subjectivity and nihilism. What good are absolute ethical norms if we can’t know what they are?
Please be patient; I’m afraid we haven’t gone quite far enough. In order to find solid justification for objective ethics we need to go one step farther. Atheists have argued (quite correctly) that an appeal to a transcendent personal God who has revealed His preceptive will to us still does not escape subjectivity. It simply pushes the problem back a little farther (out of sight and out of mind). A transcendent God has every right to impose a universally binding ethical code upon us. However, I agree with Mark Passio when he says that objective morality also needs to be immutable: it cannot be transient, or changeable. A shape-shifting ethic that follows the whimsical fancy of some transcendent higher power could hardly be used as a reliable guide for human behavior. If the only reason why theft is wrong is because God says so, then we can’t be sure that theft will still be wrong tomorrow. Perhaps He’ll change His mind.
So, in order for morality to be truly objective it needs to find its origin in the person of a transcendent law-giver who is, Himself, immutable. But even this is not quite enough. An unchanging God could decree an ethical standard that is shifting and arbitrary, provided that it is consistent with His nature to do so. If divine command forms the foundation for ethics, and if God is capricious, arbitrarily scattering moral edicts about like wind-blown leaves, then we have hardly escaped nihilism.
In order for objective moral standards to truly exist, they need to be an expression of the very nature of an immutable God who is not capricious. In order for there to be an objective definition of ethical goodness, it has to be rooted in the very nature of a God who is good, consistent with that standard. Let me be clear about this: I’m not saying that God is good because He conforms to a higher standard of goodness; I’m saying that the standard is what it is because it is an expression of who God is. Objective morality, then, finds its foundation not in divine command, but in divine ontology. In other words, objective morality is what it is not simply because God says so, but because it is an expression of His nature. The very character of a personal, transcendent, immutable, good God forms the foundation for objective morality.
This is the end of the line, and I don’t believe the line could possibly end anywhere else. Without these preconditions, morality would be hopelessly subjective, sinking into the slimy quagmire of utter nihilism.
I am fully convinced that there is an immutable, universally binding ethic that we are all held accountable to, whether we like it or not. To argue otherwise would be to commit philosophical suicide. This means that there is such a thing as objective evil, that certain behaviors are absolutely wrong and condemnable, that there is a correct place for the establishment of a criminal justice system, that humans do have rights, that there is such a thing as objective justice, and that nihilism is a farce. But I find myself able to believe these things only because there is also an absolute, transcendent, personal, immutable, good law-giver who has clearly revealed to us the transcendent norms that are an expression of His very nature. In short, this is a world governed by absolute norms (both of ethics and epistemology) because it is a world governed by an absolute law-giver.
I’ll stop here for now, even though I realize that I have probably generated as many questions as I’ve answered. Questions like: who is this transcendent law-giver? Where has He revealed Himself to us, and how? What makes me think that my God-concept is the correct one? Why not some other god? I can’t escape nihilism simply by inventing some imaginary god who supplies all the preconditions for objectivity. What makes me think my God actually exists? And, above all, why does any of this really matter?
Without a doubt, these questions deserve defensible answers. I believe that sound answers are accessible to us, and even as you read this, another essay is in its initial formative stage.
This is extremely important subject matter; more so, I think, than most people realize. Let’s keep the dialogue going, and thank you for letting me take part in it.
Blessings, freedom-loving and truth-seeking friends. I love you all!