[EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of this three-part series appeared in the May issue. Part II appeared in the June issue. Part III appears below and continues, without introductory comments, where the second article ended.]
An examination into the existence of morality and ethics provides yet another link in the chain of logical thought that establishes the case for the existence of God. The evidence often is discussed by means of what is referred to as the anthropological, or moral, argument for God’s existence. Morality is the character of being in accord with the principles or standards of right conduct. Ethics generally is viewed as the system or code by which attitudes and actions are determined to be either right or wrong. Ethics sometimes is defined as the justification of criteria by which one human life can be judged to be better or worse than another (see Henry, 1973, p. 220). Morality and ethics, then, assert that there exists a differentiation between right and wrong, and between good and evil. Moreover, by implication, there must be an appeal to some ultimate standard by which these character traits can be distinguished. The purpose of morality and ethics is inseparably connected with the purpose of life itself.
If there is no purpose in the Universe, as Simpson and others have asserted, then actually there is no purpose to morality or ethics. But the concept of a purposeless morality, or a purposeless ethic, does not make sense, and so men have sought to read some meaning, as far-fetched as it may be, into the natural human inclination to recognize the need for morality. Let us give brief attention to several of the theories that propose to explain the function of human ethics.
Hedonism is the philosophy which argues that the aim of moral conduct is the attainment of the greatest possible pleasure with the greatest possible avoidance of pain. That is to say, the single moral criterion is the preponderance of pleasure over pain. A phase of hedonism, known as psychological hedonism, contends that one can act only in this manner. But if that is the case, how could one’s actions be considered as “moral” in such circumstances? A man hardly can be viewed as moral for doing that which he cannot help doing.
Hedonism, however, is woefully inconsistent, and its advocates rarely, if ever, will stay with its logical conclusions. What if one, in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, must inflict pain upon others in order to achieve the goal? In other words, what if one must act immorally in order to practice his “morality”? What is there about hedonism that would motivate a person to forego his own pleasure in the interest of others? Absolutely nothing! Renowned British agnostic Bertrand Russell frustratingly wrote:
We feel that the man who brings widespread happiness at the expense of misery to himself is a better man than the man who brings unhappiness to others and happiness to himself. I do not know of any rational ground for this view, or, perhaps, for the somewhat more rational view that whatever the majority desires [called utilitarian hedonism—WJ] is preferable to what the minority desires. These are truly ethical problems but I do not know of any way in which they can be solved except by politics or war. All that I can find to say on this subject is that an ethical opinion can only be defended by an ethical axiom, but, if the axiom is not accepted, there is no way of reaching a rational conclusion (1969, 3:29, emp. added).
But what if a person is simply an egotistical hedonist and thus announces, “I care not at all for others; I intend to live my life solely for my own pleasure with no consideration for others, save when such is in my own interest.” But someone doubtlessly would be tempted to respond, “That is so selfish.” So, what is wrong with selfishness if it brings pleasure to the committed hedonist? Some are willing to actually go to that extreme. Atheistic philosopher Ayn Rand even authored a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness—A New Concept of Egoism, defending the concept of hedonistic selfishness. Yet who would want to live in such a society?
Utilitarianism, advocated by Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and others, is built upon the foundation of hedonism, and argues that “good” is that which gives pleasure to the greatest number of people. Again, however, the theory is seriously flawed for several reasons. First, it cannot answer the vital query: If pleasure to the greatest number of people prevents a man from achieving his own personal pleasure, what is there to motivate him toward the pleasure of the many? Second, utilitarianism provides no guideline to determine what the “pleasure” (genuine happiness) of the many actually is. Third, it is the philosophy that stands behind, and is perfectly consistent with, numerous atrocities perpetrated in the alleged interest of humanity. When Hitler slaughtered countless millions, and bred people like animals in behalf of evolving his master race, he felt he was operating in the genuine interest of mankind as a whole. The principle is: If some have to suffer in order for the ultimate good to be accomplished, so what? Of course, the leaders of such movements always are willing to step forward with their definition of what that “ultimate good” is!
Finally, however, this idea cannot provide any rational reason as to why it would be “wrong” to ignore what is in the interest of the many and, instead, simply pursue one’s personal pleasure. There is an amazing commentary on this point in an interesting book, My Father Bertrand Russell, written by Russell’s daughter, Katherine Tait. Mrs. Tait was born in London in 1923, and was educated at her parents’ innovative school, Beacon Hill, which was dedicated to the promotion of atheistic humanism. In her fascinating volume, Mrs. Tait explained what it was like being the famous philosopher’s only daughter.
For example, Bertrand Russell believed that a parent must teach his child “with its very first breath that it has entered into a moral world” (Tait, 1975, p. 59). Yet, as with all atheists and agnostics, he had a most difficult time explaining why, if man is merely the product of natural forces, children should be taught morality. Tait recalled that as a child she might say, in connection with some moral responsibility, “I don’t want to! Why should I?” A conventional parent, she observed, might reply, “Because I say so..., your father says so..., God says so....” Russell, however, would say to his children: “Because more people will be happy if you do than if you don’t.” “So what,” she would respond, “I don’t care about other people.” But her father would declare, “You should!” In her naive innocence, young Katherine would inquire, “But why?”—a question to which the redundant rejoinder would be, “Because more people will be happy if you do than if you don’t.” And, Tait noted, “We felt the heavy pressure of his rectitude and obeyed, but the reason was not convincing—neither to us nor to him” (Tait, 1975, pp. 184-185). Indeed, such specious reasoning will convince no one who thinks beyond the superficial level.
MORALS/ETHICS AND THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
The truth of the matter is that only the theocentric approach to morality can explain the purpose of life, and therefore provide adequate motivation for a genuinely ethical approach to life. Though proof of God’s existence is abundantly evident in the beautifully designed Universe, His character is made known only in His verbal communications (available to us in the biblical documents). Thus, the Bible declares that God is eternal (Psalm 90:2; 1 Timothy 1:17), and that He is morally perfect. Not only is God holy (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8), just and righteous (Psalm 89:14), and good (Psalms 100:6; 106:1), but in the ultimate sense, only God is good (Mark 10:18). Since the God of the Bible is perfect (Matthew 5:48), it is to be expected that all that proceeds from Him is initially good. Accordingly, that which He created was good (Genesis 1:31), and all that He does, commands, and approves is likewise good (Psalm 119:39,68).
The “good,” therefore, is what God is; what He has commanded results from Who He is, and thus is likewise good. In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah declared of God: “He showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). Similarly, in the New Testament Peter admonished: “As he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living; because it is written, Ye shall be holy: for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15).
Moral sensitivity (i.e., the awareness that right and wrong do exist) has been implanted in the soul of man by virtue of his creation in the image of the God Who is eternally good. Though created upright, man, as a being of free willpower, fell from his lofty estate. Accordingly, God, by means of divine revelation, seeks to bring man back into harmony with Himself—a process that entails both religious and moral obligations.
Biblical morality has several thrusts: (1) It is designed to develop within man right attitudes, or to state it another way, to instill a divine level of thinking; (2) Too, it is intended to help humanity translate spiritual attitudes into actions that will be helpful to all others; (3) Finally, the desired result is to guide man back into accord with the divine ideal, thus ensuring both his present and eternal happiness—to the glory of God.
Additionally, we may note that biblical revelation provides a sufficient motive for moral conduct. Those who have not foolishly thrust God from their minds (Psalm 14:1) acknowledge that the creation testifies of Jehovah’s existence (Romans 1:20-21), and that His orderly Universe is evidence of His good and loving nature (Acts 14:17; James 1:17; I John 4:8). The love of God in providing Christ (John 3:16) for sinful man, and the love of Jesus in offering Himself to redeem us (Revelation 1:5; Philippians 2:5ff.), are motive aplenty for leading a moral life. We love, hence, obey Him (John 14:15) because He first loved us (I John 4:10-11,19). The Scriptures provide both purpose and motive for their ethical base, whereas unbelief has neither.
OTHER CRITERIA FOR ESTABLISHING ETHICS
All theories regarding morality assume some standard by which moral judgments are made. Whether that standard is “pleasure,” “majority opinion,” “survival,” etc., these theories all have one thing in common: they assume some sort of ethical “yardstick” by which conduct is measured. I now want to give brief attention to several of these proposed standards to see how they fare in the light of logical scrutiny.
Nihilism springs from the atheistic notion that since there is no God, there can be no rational justification for ethical norms. Advocates of this viewpoint have contended that nihilism is the condition which allows that “everything is permitted.” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his work, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), has one of his characters say that if God is dead, everything is allowed! French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote:
Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.... Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior (1961, p. 485).
Sartre contended that whatever one chooses to do is right; value is attached to the choice itself so that “...we can never choose evil” (1966, p. 279). These men are correct about one thing. If there is no God, “anything goes.”
The hypocrisy of this dogma, however, is revealed by the fact that the propagators of such an idea really mean that “everything is permitted” for them alone. They do not mean that the theft of their property, the rape of their wives, and the slitting of their throats is permitted!
Moral relativism rejects the idea that there can be universal criteria for determining values. All value systems are thought to be culturally originated and conditioned, hence, all cultural ethical systems are equally valid. No moral system, it is claimed, can be said to be either true or false.
Again, though, relativism falls of its own weaknesses, and its proponents will not stay with it. What if a particular culture, e.g., that of the “Bible Belt,” believes that ethics is absolute? Would the relativists yield to that? Perish the thought! In some cultures, infanticide has been (or is being) deemed a proper form of population control. Is that then “right”? What about slavery, or the abuse of women? Where is the relativist that will declare openly and publicly the morality of such practices?
Situationism (commonly known as “situation ethics”) also repudiates the concept of any absolute system of values. For our present purpose, we may divide situationists into two classes—atheists and theists.
The atheistic position perhaps is best expressed in the Humanist Manifestos I and II. Written in 1933 and 1973, respectively, and signed by such notables as John Dewey, Isaac Asimov, Francis Crick, Julian Huxley, Antony Flew, and others, they contain the following statements:
We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous, and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human needs and interests. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life (Humanist Manifestos I and II, 1977, p. 17).
A more contradictory and absurd position would be difficult to conceive. If one argues that ethics is situational, he is suggesting that an act cannot be judged by an absolute standard, and that its rightness or wrongness is dependent upon the situation. For example, it would be wrong to lie if that falsehood was hurtful to others; however, if the lie could be helpful, it is said, then it would be right. However, as previously indicated, morality is alleged to be autonomous. That word means “self law,” suggesting that every man is his own law. If that is the case, how could there ever be a situation in which a person could do wrong? Human ethical autonomy and situational morality are mutually exclusive.
Then there is theistic situation ethics, most popularly expounded by Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher (1966, p. 55) claimed that situation ethics represents a sort of the middle-of-the-road position between the extremes of “antinomianism” (i.e., no ethical rules exist) and “legalism” (i.e., moral decisions may be made by appealing to a rule book, e.g., the Bible). For him, “love” was the sole factor in making moral judgments. It must be noted, though, that his “love” is purely subjective—each individual must decide for himself, in a given context, what the loving course is.
The theory is fraught with insuperable logical difficulties. First, it affirms, “There are absolutely no absolutes.” “Are you sure,” we would ask? “Absolutely!” claims the situationist. Situation ethics claims there are no rules save the rule to love, yet by their own rules the situationists would define love. Second, God is removed from the throne as the moral Sovereign of the Universe, and man is enthroned in His place. Man, then, with his own subjective sense of “love,” makes all final moral judgments. Situationism thus ignores the biblical view that man is lacking in sufficient wisdom to guide his earthly activities (Jeremiah 10:23). Third, Fletcher’s situationism assumes a sort of omniscience in the application of his “love” principle. For example, the theory contends that lying, adultery, murder, etc., could be “moral” if done within the context of love. Yet, who is able to predict the consequences of such acts and determine, in advance, what is the “loving” thing to do? Let us suggest the following case.
A young woman, jilted by her lover, is in a state of great depression. A married man, with whom she works, enters into an adulterous relationship with her in order to “comfort her.” Fletcher would argue that what he did might very well have been a noble deed, for the man acted out of concern for his friend. What a myopic viewpoint! Let us consider the rest of the story. The man’s wife learned of his adulterous adventure, could not cope with the situation, and eventually committed suicide. One of the man’s sons, disillusioned by the immorality of his father and the death of his mother, began a life of crime and finally was imprisoned for the murder of three people. Another son became a drunkard and was killed in an auto accident that also claimed the lives of a mother and two children. Now, was that initial act of adultery the “loving” thing to do? Hardly.
Fourth, situationism assumes that “love” is some sort of ambiguous, no-rule essence that is a cure-all for moral problems. That is like suggesting that two football teams play a game in which there will be no rules except the rule of “fairness.” Fairness according to whose judgment? Team A? Team B? The referees? The spectators? That is utter nonsense! Fifth, even when one suggests that “love” be the criterion for ethical decisions, he presupposes some standard for determining what love is. Situationists contradict themselves at every turn.
Another false concept regarding human conduct is determinism. Determinism, whether it be social, biological, or theological, has a necessary logical consequence—it absolves man of personal responsibility for his conduct. Let us consider several facts of this general thesis.
Behaviorism, as developed by John Watson (1878-1958), a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, argued that personality, hence conduct, is the end product of our habit system. Watson taught that man is merely an animal resulting from the evolutionary process. B.F. Skinner of Harvard became the leading proponent of behaviorism; he believed that man, as an animal, is the product of environment, and so even to speak of human responsibility was nonsense in his view. A practical example of these theories was seen in Clarence Darrow’s defense of murderers Leopold and Loeb, who killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks as an “experiment.” Darrow argued that they were in no way responsible for their act since brutal forces of their past had shaped their destinies (see Weinberg, 1957, pp. 16-88).
Sociobiology is a newer notion that attempts to synthesize the social sciences with biology. It sees man as a mere machine, somewhat analogous to a computer, which has been programmed by its genetic makeup. Human behavior is the result of physical and chemical forces, and, as we do not hold a machine accountable, so neither should we man.
A few comments concerning these ideas are in order. First, if determinism is true, there is no such thing as human responsibility. This is a necessary corollary of the theory. In spite of this, determinists frequently speak, write, and act as though human accountability existed. Consistency is a rare jewel among them. Second, if man is not responsible for his actions, such terms as “good” and “evil” are meaningless. Third, if man is not accountable, no one should ever be punished for robbery, rape, child abuse, murder, etc. Do we punish a machine that maims or kills a person? Fourth, how can we be expected to be persuaded by the doctrine of determinism, since the determinists were “programmed” to teach their ideas, and thus these ideas may not be true at all. Fifth, determinists won’t abide by their own doctrine. If I recopied Edward Wilson’s book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and had it published in my name, I quickly would find out whether Wilson thought I was responsible for the action or if only my genetic background was!
IS THERE ULTIMATE MORAL RESPONSIBILITY?
A crucial question that must be addressed is this: “Is there any ultimate consequence to immorality?” Atheists are fond of saying that one should not be unethical because of social sanctions, i.e., society’s disapproval, legal punishment, etc. The implication is, unethical conduct is only “bad” because you might get caught! I once asked an atheist this question: “Paul, the apostle of Christ, and Adolf Hitler are two well-known historical characters. Both are dead. Now, so far as they are concerned, does it really make any difference that they lived their lives in such divergent directions?” He replied that it did not! If that is the case, human existence makes no sense whatsoever. But that is infidelity’s position, of course.
In this article, we have discussed human moral obligations. The fact that we have considered morality is something unique to our kind. No two apes ever sat down and said, “Let’s talk about ethical obligations today.” That ought to say something about our nature. In their book, Why Believe? God Exists!, Miethe and Habermas have observed:
At every turn in the discussion of moral values, the naturalistic position is weighted down with difficulties. It has the appearance of a drowning swimmer trying to keep its head above water. If it concedes something on the one hand, it is condemned on the other. But if it fails to admit the point, it appears to be in even more trouble. It is an understatement to say, at the very least, that naturalism is not even close to being the best explanation for the existence of our moral conscience (1993, p. 219, emp. in orig.).
As I draw this discussion to a close, there are some important summary observations that should be mentioned.
Human moral responsibility is based upon the fact that God is our Creator (Psalm 100:3), and that we have been made in His spiritual image (Genesis 1:26). Just as a potter has a right over the clay he is fashioning, so our Maker has the right to obligate us morally and spiritually to right living (see Romans 9:21).
Since morality is grounded in the unchanging nature of God (Malachi 3:6; 1 Peter 1:15), it is absolute—not cultural, not relative, not situational.
God’s will for human behavior is not a matter of subjective speculation that every man figures out for himself; rather, Jehovah has spoken (Hebrews 1:1), and His Mind is made known in objective, biblical revelation (1 Corinthians 2:11ff.; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Though the Lord possesses an unchanging nature, His revelatory process was progressive and adapted to man as he developed spiritually in those times of antiquity. Accordingly, in ages of the past Jehovah tolerated, and even regulated, certain acts that are not permissible in the Christian era. This, of course, does not mean that God vacillates in His morality; it simply means that He dealt with man as he was in that infantile state (Matthew 19:8; Acts 14:16; 17:30-31). Today, the New Testament stands as the Lord’s final and ultimate standard of morality.
Though the New Testament is the “law of Christ” (Romans 8:2; Galatians 6:2), it is not a “legal” system in that each aspect of human conduct is prescribed with a “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” Yes, there are both positive and negative commands in the New Testament, but they do not spell out every specific activity. The inspired document contains many rich principles that challenge us to develop a greater sense of spiritual maturity and to soar to heights that are God-honoring.
One must recognize also that New Testament ethics does not deal merely with actions, but addresses motives as well. For instance, what if one accidentally runs down with his automobile (and thereby kills) a careless pedestrian? He is not held accountable before God, for his act was unintentional. On the other hand, one can be guilty (in disposition) of both adultery and murder (cf. Matthew 5:28; 1 John 3:15).
It is imperative that men recognize that ethical activity (i.e., right relations with one’s fellows) is not the totality of a person’s obligation before God. The centurion Cornelius certainly learned this truth (Acts 10). There are spiritual responsibilities that the Lord has prescribed as a test of true faith, and yet men frequently ignore such divine obligations.
Finally, even though the Almighty has called His human creation to a high moral level, we must recognize that He is aware that we are but frail, dusty flesh (Psalms 78:39; 103:14). And so His marvelous grace has been revealed in the unspeakably wonderful gift of His Son. Those who in loving faith submit to Him (Hebrews 5:8-9) can know the pardon of their moral blunders (Acts 22:16), and are challenged to live righteous and godly lives in this present world (Titus 2:11-14).
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