Right and wrong in the light of modern approaches to morality; has the Christian perspective anything to offer?
Right and wrong in the light of modern approaches to morality; has the Christian perspective anything to offer?
In the first part of the essay I consider whether reason is all we need to work out our moral standards. Many feel that Christianity has inhibited moral development rather than enhanced it; criticisms of the church and how scriptures are used to frighten people into moral compliance abound in the media. There is a feeling that the church does not recognise the moral sensibilities that all societies exhibit and we have reached a point where we no longer need any kind of religion to guide us.
The second part takes a closer look at morality in a world where there is no perceived proof of a God, where we have a naturalistic explanation of the origin of our species, and where philosophers have begun to deconstruct some old ideas which remain in our thinking but are now out-dated. The modern idea that morality and meaning is only a function of human relationships is explored.
There is no assertion that Christians have any kind of moral superiority over others so as to coerce or intimidate people into behaving in preferred ways. Such methods are diametrically opposite to Christ’s view of how to influence others. Rather the idea is that we should consider Christ’s teaching about morality in a reflective, rational and humble fashion. In that context, the purpose of this essay is for Christians to realise that there is no cause for their beliefs to be consigned to intellectual antiquity.
Rationality and Goodness-do we really need to believe in God as the source of goodness anymore?
Is rationality the main way to work out our values? Have we outgrown religion? Many people do not feel the need to explain “goodness” – they feel it is just there as part and parcel of human nature and we should simply work with it, rather than seek to work out why it exists. We should develop our moral sense by using our reason , resources and abilities. Along with this, religion, or should I say the Christian tradition, is often associated with a resistance to change, perhaps representing an intolerance to newer ways of living, in terms of family structures, gender issues and sexuality. The modern approach is that It is much better to work out moral rules for the society we are currently living in, rather than rely on the values of the past; the advantages seem to be that we are more likely to take ownership of rules of life we create, rather than being instructed to carry them out by an authority that cannot be questioned or proved to exist at all. It means we take responsibility for ourselves rather than bow to a higher authority which we cannot fathom, or be tempted to use maliciously to exert power over others. Religion has given us some benefits but basically we have outgrown it.
This seems to have a broad appeal in 21st century Britain and underpins the idea that our culture promotes individuality and freedom of choice. It does become rather more complicated when minority religions and cultures practice certain traditions which contradict the notion of individual choice. How tolerant of the intolerant should we be? For some, the rational solution will be to legislate against activities which in some sub-cultures are normal practice. In the UK there are laws against forced marriages, whereas in many parts of the developing world it is legally permitted. For others there will be a debate about whether education and community outreach is a better way of promoting the value of freedom to choose a partner. And of course, from a minority perspective, some citizens may see the imposition of laws which promote so called “tolerance” as an intrusion into private life and imposition on cultural and religious freedom. Another example of differing perspectives on whether certain behaviours should be permitted might be the public slaughter of animals as part of a religious tradition. Here there will be differing interpretations as to what constitutes an offence in terms of public decency, just as there is with fox hunting.
There can be equally rational ideas which compete for acceptance; for example, how should those in poverty be helped? Some will argue that to give too much support will de-motivate those living in poverty, and some will say that not giving enough support will simply deprive them of opportunities to improve their situation. Some will say that financial support for the poor is part of a civilised society; others will argue that education and opportunity is more important than simply providing hand outs. These are all rational positions, but they are different one from another. In short, just using rationality as determinant of what is morally acceptable is problematic because the term “rationality” is not morally neutral; any approach to a moral problem can be justified by a variety of reasons, and those reasons often represent the underlying assumptions and political standpoint which a particular course of action carries with it. Moral relativity is the theory and belief that because there is no rational solution to two opposing moral approaches or practices (e.g. monogamy against polygamy) the implication must be that there is no absolute moral truth; morality is culturally created. This view arose out of early anthropological cross cultural studies. This is an issue that I will take up in the second part of this essay, but for the moment consider these two lists.
List 1 List 2
Can the items in List 1 solve all the problems of list 2? I think the rational answer is that they can’t because they are different types of interaction. In court cases where each party has a case to argue, the solution cannot be solved solely by reference to List 2; they are primarily dependent on implementing List 1. Likewise when couples separate in acrimony the nature and quality of the future relationship is perhaps more dependent on list 2. Of course the case may go to court when both lists will simultaneously operate. The court case may settle issues about finances, custody of children and property, but it won’t be able to regulate the feelings of brokenness or reconciliation involved.
Tim Keller argues in his book, “Generous Justice”, that there are differing views as to what the constituents of justice are and cites Sandel’s characterisation of three alternatives; they are maximizing welfare to as many as possible, maximizing individual choice or promoting individual moral development. He argues that “underneath all notions of justice is a set of faith assumptions that are essentially religious.”( Keller,T,2010,p154). His case is that there is a historical Christian case for each perspective. However many people who espouse just causes would not see their actions as faith based; rather they might argue that such principles are self evident. Some principles may have been associated with Christian history but that justification no longer applies. Perhaps the first(in italics), but not the second, part of Tim Keller’s conclusion that “the pursuit of justice in society is never morally neutral but is always based on understandings of reality that are essentially religious in nature.” may meet with greater accord with religious sceptics. (Keller,T,2010,p169)
What are some of the values which underlie those different conceptions of justice? Is personal freedom more important than experiencing a sense of community? Do I value the well being of the majority more than the plight of a minority of individuals? Or is it better in the long term to prioritise the human rights over the immediate relief of poverty? Are communal endeavours more important than individual virtue, or in the long term will inner personal change create more social good? These variations in value assumptions are clearly different from one another but each has a rational justification for seeking to create a more “just” society. Rational justifications can of course be compared but those comparisons involve reference to values and values are more than reason; they are also what we instinctively feel are vital to the well being of both ourselves and others. They appear to be “self evident”. It is because what is self evident to one person may not be to another, that rationality is insufficient, in itself, to explain why something is considered morally significant. Some of the alternative explanations will be referred to during the course of the essay. For the moment suffice it to say that “self evident” could refer to the sum of an individual’s personal experience or to a Rawlsian based social contract, where the most disadvantaged in society still benefit from wealth inequalities. Values which stem from personal histories compared to those which emanate from the idea of a social contract are bound to differ. Tim Keller’s point that the pursuit of justice is underpinned by a variety of moral perspectives is clearly the case.
Nevertheless, those who promote the idea that we should use our dispassionate reasoning to work out what is best, are saying that reason should prevail over tradition, superstition and religious dogma particularly when fear is used as a consequence for deviance from the expected behaviour, i.e. God or the church’s disapproval. These older methods of trying to establish moral values are seen as psychologically flawed, in that they inhibit the objective consideration of all the available options.
But is reason really the master? From an evolutionary perspective it is only the master insofar as it promotes dominance and survival. We are both selfless and selfish and like a tug of war both influences pull against each other. Whereas rationality might bring us to a point of living in peace with each other, the species might do better overall if there is infighting, even cruelty between people, preparing us to combat external threats. If the strongest get to the top of society then the human race will be stronger in the round, as opposed to being made weaker through excessive internal co-operation. So is it rational to climb to the top and treat others badly? On this account, it is.
So not only does rationality on its own fail to provide a single solution to a moral problem, because there are many rational alternatives, but also actions which most would say were morally repugnant including cruelty and abuse can be rationally justified. Conversely, rationality by itself does not explain why human compassion is there in the first place.
Conscience is the moral thermometer which is built into our psyche, but where does it come from? One theory is the Freudian approach which, in line with evolutionary perspectives, suggests that our primal instincts are inbuilt desires for control, comfort and sexual fulfilment. These instincts need regulation for the purposes of social order but we are also taught in our early years to repress some of those instincts, and this causes a sense of guilt which is the foundation of conscience.
Alternatively the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, started from the opposite view, namely that human beings are essentially good. Carl Rogers(1959) believed that humans have “one basic motive, that is the tendency to self actualize-i.e. to fulfil one’s potential and achieve the highest level of ‘human beingness’ we can. Like a flower that will grow to its full potential if the conditions are right, but which is constrained by its environment, so people will flourish and reach their potential if their environment is good enough”. ( www.simplypsychology re: Carl Rogers,)
The parable of the Good Samaritan, already referred to, gives us an insight into the Christian perspective which looks at both the positive and negative characteristics of human nature. We have already seen that the church is not always the “Good Samaritan”, and has at times, passed by on the other side, as well as misused its authority to intimidate people into moral compliance. Despite these failures, the Christian claim is that that our moral senses are more than repressed basic instincts or just simply there, but dented by negative environments. There are obviously many instances where repression is the key issue for an individual, or where the poor environments have damaged a person’s self confidence. Healthy emotional development and supportive environments are essential to the growth of moral awareness, but from a Christian point of view, they are constituent parts of being human; so the sense of being created in “God’s image” involves more than developmental and environmental influences, vital though they are; it allows for a sense of security, knowing that even though we have to work things out for ourselves, there is a “parent” to seek help and guidance from. So when human conscience is healthily developed we use it to sense whether or not we have mistreated someone or taken their rights away from them in a way that contradicts our own self worth. Conscience here is about more than a balance between repression and expression or creating positive environments, it is about the nature of the relationships which we experience with each other. Those relationships validate or challenge our identity so how we treat others is intimately bound up with the way we see ourselves. For the Christian the mystery of the Trinity, i.e. that God is three persons in one, is something which helps to put the inner self into a context. In other words a personal sense of worth cannot be experienced without the context of relationships; both with each other and with God.
One of the problems some parts of the Christian tradition have difficulty in is fully acknowledging why people with seeming no belief, or from different religious traditions, have demonstrated unsurpassed acts of selflessness and sacrifice for others. In the midst of the brutality of war the highest human qualities often show themselves, and there are many stories of those who drown whilst attempting to save others in peril in the sea. They are not all Christians! Of course instances such as these provide fuel for those moral relativists who consider belief in God to be a shackle. It does, however, seem that Christ himself had no problem whatsoever in recognising that goodness could come from an unexpected source; the parable of the Good Samaritan actually emphasises that compassion often fails to come from the anticipated direction. In a later discourse he said this, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in”.(St Mathew’s Gospel ,Chapter 25, verse 35)In this passage Christ was explaining that divine judgement as to who is genuinely compassionate is very different to human judgement, particularly for those who consider themselves to be in God’s favour.
There are of course many great accounts of such acts within church history, and there have undoubtedly been major Christian influences in the development of education and health, as well as campaigns such as the one to abolish slavery (although the slave trade has now reappeared in a different form) and in the contribution to social justice as Tim Keller illustrates. Indeed, as John Coffey argues, “early advocates of religious toleration in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe were devout Christians”. (Coffey 2003, page 3) They realized that religious persecution was a betrayal of the Christian Gospel. The commitment and martyrdom in Latin America of some Catholic Priests in the fight for social justice has left its mark but equally there have been horrific scandals in the Church involving physical, sexual and emotional abuse. It seems impossible to weigh up the moral scales between the believing and unbelieving world, much as writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would like to do.
First of all the question of why Christians have sometimes taken it upon themselves to misuse power and exercise dominance over others needs to be accepted. Sometimes in confession, corporate sins are acknowledged as well as individual ones. When Christians have taken it upon themselves to exercise “God’s judgement” on His behalf they are, of course, acting, without fully acknowledging it, on their own behalf, not God’s. Secondly the language of belief can be and is used as a masquerade for cruel and abusive behaviour. Richard Dawkin’s book ,The God Delusion, is full of such examples. Even though the “bad apple” argument often seems harsh to those who are inside a movement, from an external point of view they are seen as evidence of double standards. So appealing to those who might see a positive difference in the way Christians behave does not convince those who are sceptical about the evidential basis of it in the first place. The Christian account of why people the world over are good, even when they are surrounded by hopelessness, is that we are made “in God’s image”. The basis of the Christian claim is that goodness has an unassailable identity which is personally based, relationship orientated and has left its mark across the human race. To use an analogy, “goodness” like daylight, has a source. Sometimes I get up and I can’t see the sun at all; it is too cloudy. Other times there are flickers of sunlight through the clouds, and occasionally the sun bursts through in terrifying intensity whilst at night I cannot see the sun at all. Just as the physical world has darkness, light and shades of both, so also the human condition.
According to the humanist, prescriptive values, derived from scriptures, prohibit the use of rationality in determining what moral standards we adhere to. There are branches of the Christian Church that require strict obedience to an interpretation of Christian values, and threaten the wrath or displeasure of God as a consequence of disobedience. There are, of course, many other branches of the church which adopt a more inclusive approach, and where moral boundaries affect whether an individual can take up a position of authority within the church. However, this variation in church practice does not help in understanding how Christ, himself approached moral and spiritual issues. The Gospels are full of dialogue with those he came across in his ministry, often culminating in a telling remark or a parable. These methods, especially the parables, were invitations to think about the deeper issues involved, and by implication, to reflect on what really mattered in a situation. No matter what we think is the right approach, it is not explicit in the gospels, for instance, what Christ would have said about euthanasia or abortion, or whether governments should fight wars or allow their countries to be occupied by foreign invaders. It has to be deduced. And as already mentioned there are differing perspectives on these issues within the church as well as outside it.
Rationality has to play a part in how individuals formulate their own views on these issues, and also how institutions, secular and religious, approach them. Some Christians will seek to interpret the issues with as little variation as possible from any statement of Christ which could potentially have been linked to the issue, and refer to theological texts to assist them. Others will see Christ as more of a moral revolutionary, someone who changed the emphasis from a set of prohibited actions, without abandoning them, to a focus on how human motivation and character works. Both are rational perspectives but with differing assumptions behind them. Rationality is part of Christian morality just as much as it is a part of humanistic endeavour. In this respect, Christians, including evangelical Christians, perhaps have more in common with some aspects of humanism than they realise.
Secondly the issue of authority; the humanist could argue as I have already said earlier that moral values stemming from an unapproachable God make for a subservience which stops people from having a real ownership of their values. There is a misconception at work here; it is that humanists do not use authority as a source of moral instruction. It would be absurd to suggest that humanists do not guide and correct their children into the moral behaviours which they consider to be appropriate for them. Authority is a mechanism which both Christians and humanists use when shaping the behaviour of their children. This of course means that that the humanist’s position has to include human authority as legitimate but divine authority as myth, when it comes to how values are formed.
Rationality –it’s not enough, for the Christian or the Secularist!
So to summarise, the problem in saying that rationality is a sufficient tool to work out moral problems is that opposing solutions can be apparently equally rational. Secondly evolutionary theorists would suggest that aggression is probably more important when it comes to survival than kindness towards others. However, neither rationality nor evolutionary influences appear to fully explain the depths of human compassion. The charge that religions use paternalism is undermined by the fact that atheists and agnostics alike guide and correct their children into their chosen moral pathways. Similarly the suggestion that there is not room for reflection in Christian ethics is contradicted by the way in which Christ taught in parables and explored how our inner thoughts affect our actions.
So what good is the Christian account of God being a morally perfect being? How does it help us, if help us at all, given the charges of intolerance and repression made by those who espouse rationality as the arbiter of our core values? Should we sacrifice our rationality in the face of prescriptive commandments? And how does it explain the fact that acts of great selflessness occur in all societies?
• Rationality does not on its own bring together heart, body, mind and spirit; human attempts to do this seem to focus on one or other of those aspects. Christians are not immune from this kind of bias but we are not discussing performance; we are assessing what makes sense in the context of the human condition
• Because human moral development is limited, just as our understanding of the natural world is, it does not mean that the glimpse of a perfect moral being is simply a dream, or just part of the mix of human nature. If the latter is the case then there is no real case to argue that compassion and kindness is of any greater value than anger and aggression. The Christian account of God as perfect, embodied in the human form of Christ, implies that love, mercy and acceptance are qualities that are not subservient to some more basic instinct, but ultimately have an unassailable essence.
• And following on from this, the impact of knowing our limitations should result in a sense of moral humility; we should veer away from an arrogant approach to moral supremacy. The church has at times disregarded this at its own cost.
Moral Relativity, Tolerance and Objectivism
In the second section of this essay I will take a closer look moral relativism, objectivism (the name for a belief in objective universal characteristics) and its implications regarding tolerance, the natural world, and faith in God, through Christ.
Cultural relativism advances its cause by saying that , because there is no way of proving which cultural moral code or practice is rationally superior to all others, the only possible conclusion is that there is no ultimate moral source. This leads to the key idea which dominates modern relativism, namely that there is no knowledge beyond human understanding. An ultimate moral source would only be true if perfect moral standards were so obvious that no other alternatives would be considered; we would all know without any doubt what true morality entailed.
The assumption is that such knowledge would carry with it total compliance because it would be blindingly obvious to us all as to what the correct approach to life was. That of course would not be the case because we exercise freedom of choice, but more than that it would carry with it an assumption that we understood what was involved in being a perfect moral being. An alternative to this critique of objectivism is that there is a perfect moral experience but we as humans do not know what that is like. We are limited in our understanding and grasp of both the natural world and moral perfection.
The nature of goodness is also that it loses its essential character if it becomes an involuntary action; can you force a child to be kind? You can force a child to go through the motions (“Sorryee!!”) but that does not make it genuine, until the learnt response is accompanied by true intent.
So freedom of choice is an essential constituent part of our moral sense. However the variation in our moral values is not solely because of freedom of choice, but also because rationality and interpretation are essential parts of exercising that freedom in a human context. The relativist argument when stripped to basics suggests that any spectrum where there is variation means that the core concept does not exist. To put the counter argument, the existence of the autistic spectrum does not mean that there is no such thing as autism. Or to use a physical example, just because people are of different heights it cannot be said that there is no such thing as height. Consequently just because people have differing moral perspectives and values, it does not mean that there is no such thing as a universal moral sense. Christians view gender roles and issues concerning the lesbian/gay community, very differently one from another, just as views vary in the wider community. Just because they are viewed differently by different people doesn’t mean that the issues don’t exist ; because there are pro-abortionists and anti-abortionists that cannot mean that there is no such thing as abortion! There are differences within and between religious communities (just as there are some similarities). The variations in moral perspectives do not imply that morality does not exist at all, otherwise all variations would mean that the core concept, whatever it was, is false.
This is not a uniquely Christian point of view either. Writers such as David Copp maintain that all societies have basic needs such as physical survival, self respect and the promotion of friendship which are necessary for minimal rational agency, by which he means the very least needed for a society to function at any level-these needs are “much more important than other values in determining which moral code it is rational for a society to select”. This latter position is a mixture of objectivism (the existence of some universal criteria) with relativism (values which are specific to particular cultures). This allows some writers, such as Wong, to argue the case for both universal standards and relativism. (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Moral Relativism) They do not argue, however that such universal characteristics are derived from us being created by God. They simply argue that they are there as part of human society or have evolved through the process of natural selection. For example the website , Moral Foundations says this about the emergence of virtues such as kindness and gentleness; “This ..is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel and dislike the pain of others”(Moral Foundations.org) The Christian point of view does not have to discount the contribution of evolutionary influences, but cannot solely rely on them. And the reason it does not depend on such ideas completely is because the human spirit is understood to be a created, if partial, reflection of God’s own character. This is not simply the rhetoric of a past age; it is the assertion that the capacity to consciously experience love and individual identity, express ourselves, and know what beauty feels like, is of a higher order than the result of a biological need to survive. In other words it is intuitively so that humanity is an indication of something much greater than the side effect of species survival. The sum is greater than the parts. It is more than “spare capacity” or “surplus value” as Christopher Hitchens argues.(Hitchens C You Tube 2007) He believes that some people love others more than they need to only to promote human solidarity. That seems to be an insufficient explanation. I will return to the debate as to whether naturalism is a sufficient explanation for our moral senses.
So a Christian position on morality is a mixture of objectivism ( God is the source of moral experience)and relativism(individuals interpret the moral teaching of Christ in a variety of ways).One of the challenges for Christian thinkers which moral relativity has thrown up is the relativist argument that no one moral culture can be proved rationally superior to another. The consequence is that nothing can be proved about the accuracy or otherwise of different religions. For example, it doesn’t matter that Muhammad had twelve wives and Christ was single; or that he fought military campaigns and Christ didn’t because in the end one philosophy cannot be proved as superior to the other. From here it is a short step to conclude that all religions convey a very similar sentiment, and therefore they are all essentially the same.
“We can no longer be certain that “our ring” is the magic one ...Or maybe the magic lies not in the rings themselves but in the believing of them to be so?” (Clements, R 1992, page 3) “The ultimate irony is that such a culture also becomes deeply intolerant of anyone who disagrees with its basic belief that all views are equally valid.”(Christie, A ,2005) Now this not only creates problems for anyone who has a conviction about there being a God but also for the moral relativist! If any view is as equally as valid as any other, it means that the relativist cannot condemn such movements as Fascism or other xenophobic philosophies, in any absolute sense! The most they can rationally say is they are disgusted by it according to their own culturally based moral code! And that is a very lukewarm defence against such objectionable ideologies and practices. Moral relativists might argue in reply that objectors emerge from within such repressive regimes, and therefore present alternatives and challenges to such atrocities, within their own cultural framework. In other words moral relativity is not a carte blanche to sanction exploitation; it can have integrity.
Moral relativists, however, do not like being argued into the corner that tolerance is simply one type of contextual moral standard that has no purchase on restraining the more destructive philosophies that are invited in to a pluralistic society. They have to either argue for some basic essential moral foundation as a necessary condition for a civilized society, or argue that pluralism should engender tolerance even though it does not follow logically that relativity implies tolerance! “Metaphysical Moral Relativity cannot very well imply that it is an objective moral truth that we should be tolerant; Metaphysical Moral Relativity denies there are such truths.”(My italics) (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Moral Relativism)
As soon as the word “should” is used in a non-logical sense, the rationalist leaves the world of reason and appeals to some kind of unspoken moral standard. Modern critics of religion as the cause of suffering are prone to yielding to this temptation. After the 9/11 atrocity in New York Matthew Parris wrote in the Spectator that “Godlessness is a humanising force” (Parris, M, The Spectator 2002), because it avoids claims of universal truth and disallows a belief in an after- life which displaces the importance of valuing life here on earth. However such critics are not pleading for universal tolerance per se, because understandably, they are intolerant of terrorist acts of violence. So when critics of any external belief in a higher moral source qualify what should be tolerated and what should not, they are implicitly referring to a moral standard which they consider to be an essential ingredient of human society, and they are indicating that tolerance can only be defended within a context of universal Human Rights. And this creates a tension for moral relativists who maintain that moralities are only a function of the cultures they emanate from, including the concept of Human Rights.
Christ himself was deeply intolerant of religious hypocrisy, indifference to the poor, and treating people differently according to their social and religious status. He did not, however, suggest that the answer to such problems could be imposed coercively, by extreme psychological pressure or physical violence. He did say a great deal about God’s judgement but He was equally clear about how relationships should be changed for the better, and the famous passage on the sermon on the mount about loving our enemies instead of seeking revenge for wrongs, is a clear example to any Christian as to how to influence the flawed nature of our world. He was not just theorising as His words on the cross demonstrate; “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. So for Christ tolerance and acceptance was something which should be used to cut across divisive and hierarchical cultural boundaries; intolerance and recourse to violence is not an effective way to address differences. When one of Christ’s companions cut off the High Priest’s servant’s ear, He admonished him and told him to put His sword away. “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword”. (St.Mathew’s Gospel , Chapter 26 verse 52) Christ demonstrated how to challenge injustice without becoming an agent of injustice oneself.
Objectivism and Naturalism
I have tried to show that it is very difficult to be an “absolute” moral relativist without having to revert to some notion of universality when a barbarous act or degrading violence is perpetrated. This applies to the spectrum of tolerance and intolerance, in that some criteria of what is unacceptable to tolerate means that reference has to be made to a broader moral instinct. The Christian does not have to pretend to have access to the character of a morally perfect being. Simply being created in God’s image is a sufficient explanation for the universal experience of some level of moral awareness. And this means that some of the variations in moral approaches which relativists claim to invalidate the idea of God as a source of morality, are perfectly acceptable to Christians; where the difference occurs is that Christians claim that God does exist, objectively, and of course that Christ was God’s manifestation of himself on earth, as a means to understanding the fragility and nature of human experience, and more. Moral relativists, and many others such as postmodernists, do not think that such beliefs have an objective status, but are creations of human interaction. In fact postmodernists claim that notions of truth and rationality are themselves socially constructed ideas which have been inherited from both religion and science, and are open to challenge in a world where all meanings are shaped by human interpretation.
In this last section I want to look at the different arguments for and against the idea of there being an external source which explains our moral nature. Richard Dawkins was asked at a conference where he considers our moral sensibilities stem from. (Dawkins on The Source of Morality-You Tube) He said in his view that our moral sense is a misfired by-product of our Darwinian heritage. When human society was in its early stages people lived in small groups where they had to reciprocate each other’s altruism in order for the group to function and survive. Some of those moral habits have survived and are no longer as essential as they were in our modern urban societies. He draws a parallel in terms of sexual activity which is no longer just a method of reproduction, but part of an intimate relationship, made possible by the use of contraceptives. He also acknowledges that it is to some extent imponderable as to why human beings are moral in their disposition, suggesting that moral philosophers are generally not religiously inclined but provide a context for morally positive behaviour; he cites Rawls’ idea of constructing a social order where you do not know in advance where you will end up, or doing to others as you would wish to be treated, or opposing suffering, as possible candidates.
A post modernist would take this uncertainty to suggest that the relationship between evolutionary biology and the language of modern moral discourse needs to be deconstructed and revised, perhaps resulting in a new criteria of acceptable behaviour which does not rely on words such as “good” and “evil” but replaces them with words such as “discriminatory” and “ identity”. Postmodernists take things a step further than cultural relativists in that they question the underlying validity of all concepts, whereas relativists are not trying to challenge existing values, but simply explain how they are arrived at, namely through cultural and social interaction. Both relativists and postmodernists see no reality beyond human society.
There is of a sense in which the language of a society conveys its priorities and values even though meaning can vary between groups and individuals; the work of researchers such as Mark Hauser, suggest that there is a universal moral trait in all human societies, even though it is manifested in a variety of forms. “ Underlying the extensive cross-cultural variation in our expressed social norms is a universal moral grammar...”(Hauser, M 2005,page 455) This implies that even though language and meaning may be relative this does not mean that there are no such things as underlying characteristics.
Hauser subtitles his book, “How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong”, which is the same line that Dawkins takes. Christians see the way nature works as part of the process of creation, not the entire process. Naturalists do not think that there is any evidence to draw on apart from the natural world in explaining where our moral sense comes from. Christians maintain that there is a creative force where to put it crudely, “matter can be created by mind”. God is spirit and truth. What is the evidential basis of this claim? The answer, in brief, is human creativity. The argument is not just that because we have the capacity to create machines, art, music, buildings, we are therefore created beings ourselves. That, of course, is one possible case to argue. The more compelling inference is based on how the human mind can manipulate the raw materials of nature to come up with such complex artefacts and achievements. If human beings can use their minds in such creative ways then it is logically possible to imagine that a higher order intelligence could create matter out of nothing, or, remodel very basic matter, formless and empty, into the natural world including human beings.
The evolutionary biologist infers that morality is a survival by product from early forms of human communities. There is no evidence for this; it is simply an inference based on a metaphor from the evolution of the physical world. The Christian maintains that the human capacity to use the raw material of nature in a creative and inspiring way implies that some of our moral characteristics are results of being created in God’s image, with nature being the vehicle of that creative force. Children are not exact replicas of their parents and so the sense in which Christians believe human beings are created by God, is similar; it is about resemblance not replication.
It is worth mentioning that inference is not just a refuge taken by social scientists or theologians in the absence of hard scientific evidence as the following quote explains:
Ultimately, the foundations of the Physics Establishment’s theory are a set of complicated mathematical equations whose parameters are adjusted from time-to-time to establish agreement with the latest experimental measurements (Frank Wilczek ,Physics Today ,2004).
Inference is a tool used by scientists and increasingly by physicists who through quantum mechanics are exploring the nature of particles in a way that is increasing the mystery of how the natural world works.
But despite its triumphs, quantum mechanics remains somewhat mysterious. Physicists are completely confident in how they use quantum mechanics--they can build theories, make predictions, test against experiments, and there is never any ambiguity along the way. And nevertheless, we're not completely sure we know what quantum mechanics really is. ...According to quantum mechanics, what we can observe about the world is only a tiny subset of what actually exists.”(Carroll,S, Quantuum Mechanics Made Easy)
Professor Brian Cox recently said, "Science is never right -- it is just the best we can do”. (Radio 4 –The Today Programme 16.6.15). So the popular notion that science deals with fact whilst religion and philosophy deal with ideas is in fact, a false dichotomy. Our world is a mixture of both ascertainable fact and theoretical frameworks, but the two are inextricably entwined. For science to develop there has to be cycle of theoretical development and experimental confirmation, as the above quote by Sean Carroll illustrates. Moral relativity has grown , not only because of a belief that there is no higher intelligence than human beings, but also because of a popular distinction made between facts and values; “facts” are true because they are reinforced by concrete evidence, and ideas have no physical counterpart. It is a distinction that positivist thinkers have tried to emphasise, so that science becomes a higher form of knowledge than other ways of understanding our world. In fact natural science is a different way of understanding rather than a better one. Understanding the electrical impulses in the brain when we show concern and affection to loved ones is not better than the experience itself; it is just a different perspective of the same event; it cannot replace the conscious awareness of the relationship as we experience it.
Moral relativists do not appear to use the notion of inference in the same way that Christians and scientists of quantum mechanics do! They believe that the cultural explanation of human morality is a comprehensive explanation. They veer towards the fact/value distinction because of the assertion that there is no rational, or if I may interpolate, ”scientific”, way of establishing which moral code is superior to another, given that moral codes are only created from human interaction and culture. Christians believe that God exists and that this is a reasonable inference to make from the life, death and resurrection of Christ. But in the same way that scientists do not know what the full extent of quantum mechanics really is, so those who exercise their faith in Christ, also do not fully know what God is really like. Both scientists and Christians could be just touching the edge of what there is to be known.
Moral relativists baulk at the idea that their credo is an open door to all kinds of abusive behaviour, as I have referred to in the discussion on tolerance above. They are not only subject to criticisms from objectivists such as Christians but also other campaigners such as feminists or human rights activists; this is because the idea that moral codes cannot be evaluated against any universal criteria lessens the impact of the cause in question. Of course it would be wrong to imagine that moral relativists are incapable of carrying out the most sacrificial acts for others. The point here is to examine the assumptions behind their stated position, and those assumptions are that inference to a higher order is ruled out as a possibility, and any implied universal rule of tolerance does not logically flow from saying that morality is solely a function of cultural influence.
Those who support an objectivist view of morality as opposed to a relativist one come from either religious or evolutionary perspectives. The evolutionary perspective, as represented by writers like Dawkins and Hitchens, is essentially that our moral sense has emerged from what are pragmatic or instrumental needs for species survival. They are spin offs which have left us with some surplus value, some parts of which are no longer absolutely essential in a modern society. This, like the relativist position, also undermines the notion that goodness has an unassailable character of its own.
The Christian account that human nature is a reflection of the image of God at the same time as being flawed (this is more than simply carrying out selfish acts, it is “leaving the things undone that should have been done”) is, in my view, the most balanced account of our moral state. In theory, this acknowledges human goodness as being genuine from anyone from any religious, atheistic or agnostic position, as well as addressing the imperfections and destructive tendencies of the human condition.
The purpose of this essay has been to construct a rational defence of a Christian objectivist position, rather than justify all the actions of the church. It is, however, intended to defend this position whilst acknowledging our moral and intellectual limitations. The kind of objectivism carried out by the Dutch Reform church during the Apartheid regime is exactly the kind of objectivism which has driven many towards the safer ground of moral relativity. “The white-dominated “Dutch Reformed Church” supported apartheid, arguing from the Bible that God deliberately divided people into different races(see Genesis 11) but used this to suggest that the whites were superior to blacks. The Bible says: There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians – you are one in Christ Jesus(Galatians 3:28) They reconciled this to their beliefs by suggesting that people were spiritually equal, but not physically equal. They believed that:
o South Africa’s Apartheid Laws were God’s will.
o Races should be kept apart
o Whites should have better opportunities as they heed God’s “favour”
o Mixed marriages and relationships are discouraged so races remain” pure”
o God is the “Great Divider”
There were Christians at the time who fought against this segregation. Two of the most influential were Bishop Desmond Tutu and Trevor Huddleston... In 1982 the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) declared a state of confession “as a protest against Christian Apartheid beliefs” The Kairos document .... accused the Dutch reformed Church of “misusing biblical texts for(your) own political purposes.” The DRMC’s gradually changed to the point where it made a public declaration of repentance of them". (request.org.ukapartheid/)
There is a case to be argued for a humble objectivism that doesn’t assume some kind of historicist supremacy as a means of domination and oppression over others. The rational case is only one part of the issue. Our moral sense is more than reason; it is a combination of motives, choices, values, disposition and social influences, and for the Christian a reflection of being part of God’s creation. But there is also another aspect of our moral sense which needs attention; the need for growth and change; for individuals and societies to move away from selfish and destructive tendencies. For the Christian this can only be done in the context of relationships, including an inner exchange of heart and mind with God, through Christ; an incarnation so we could see God in human form, and see how we are created in God’s image. The moral relativists and evolutionists also find themselves wanting such moral change even though their theoretical basis for it seems much less secure than modern writers would have us believe. A moral relativist’s rational position on the Dutch reform church’s approach to Apartheid is more likely to be couched in terms of cultural context rather than condemnation. Their inner response, however, is more likely to be one of indignation, perhaps echoing the following sentiment. Jesus said this:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” ( Mathews Gospel , Chapter 23 ,verses 23-24) R Kanga 19.8.15References(in sequence)
Keller,T,2010,Generous Justice, Hodder & Stoughton
Coffey,J,The Myth of Secular Tolerance, Cambridge Papers towards a biblical Mind Vol12,Number 3,2003,page 3
Carl Rogers, Self Actualisation accessed at http://www.simplypsychology.org/carl-rogers.html Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Moral relativism, revised 20.4.2015 at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/ www.Moralfoundations.org
Christopher Hitchens-The Morals of an Atheist(2007) Stanford University accessed on Youtube, Clements,R, 1992,Papers towards a biblical Mind Vol 1,Number 1, ,page 3
AR Christie, Messenger Magazine, Blackheath, 2005
Parris M, Belief in paradise is hell on earth, The Spectator, 22.9.2001
Richard Dawkins on the Source of Morality, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg, Virginia –You Tube
Hauser M,2006,Moral Minds, How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Abacus page 455
Frank Wilczek, Reference Frame: “Analysis and Synthesis IV: Limits and Supplements,” Physics Today, Volume 57 Number 1, pp. 10-11 (January 2004). Quantum Mechanics Made Easy Chapter 11, "Quantum Time," of From Eternity to Here:The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time© Sean Carroll accessed at