Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What's Your Foundation?


When trying to convince someone about the morality (or immorality) of a given action, there often seems to be little progress made. In my experience, this is usually the result of the other person having different beliefs about the foundation of moral values and duties. As a Catholic Christian, I believe that moral values and duties are objective realities created by God. They are not arbitrary "rules" that God made up – they flow from God's very nature.  If God is the Summum Bonum or Highest Good, and He created the universe for a purpose, it follows that an action carried out in His Creation is objectively good and moral to the extent that it conforms to His purpose. It is very inconsistent (and sometimes, comical) when skeptics or atheists try to maintain the existence of objective moral values and duties, that is, "values and duties that are real and binding on all people, regardless of time, place, or culture," without God as their source.

Missing the Point

This is the most misunderstood aspect of Christian morality. Non-believers will often say, "I don't need to believe in God to be a good person," "Why can't we just be good people and leave religion out of this?" and, "Isn't it better to just be good because you want to, instead of doing so because some two-thousand-year-old book tells you to, or because you're afraid of going to Hell?" The truth is, no reasonable Christian will claim that an atheist or agnostic cannot live their life in a moral way, and the only thing statements and questions like these prove is that the person offering them is completely missing the point of the argument. The argument is NOT that belief in God is necessary for a person to act morally. Rather, it is that the existence of God is necessary.  

In a world plagued by moral relativism, the one authority that everyone still believes they must obey is their own conscience.  By conscience I mean the faculty every human being has by nature to judge the moral quality of actions and distinguish right from wrong. Personally, I find this universal obedience to conscience somewhat curious.  Why does conscience have this authority? To answer this, we must look at the possible sources of conscience. They are:
      
        1. Nature, as in beliefs about behavior learned through the evolutionary process
        2. Ourselves, as in our personal tastes and subjective interpretations
        3. Society, as in social norms formed by the majority opinion 
        4. An external, higher source like a transcendent Creator

"Follow Your Conscience Biological Processes"

If the source of our moral conscience is evolution, that would mean that all of the moral values and duties that we encounter in life are merely the products of random mutation and natural selection, and that what we perceive as our "conscience" is really just highly developed natural instincts that best served our ancestors in allowing them to survive and reproduce.  If this really were the case, then how can I be bound to follow my conscience? Why should I be obligated to answer to a biological process? Why should I believe that the instincts I've inherited from thousands upon thousands of years ago are a trustworthy guide to follow, or authority to obey, when deciding how I will conduct myself? The fact is, the processes of nature, as beautiful and intricate as they are, cannot be binding on my conscience. Also, what is widely regarded as morally reprehensible is often times what our instinct tells us to do, and yet we resist through good judgement and experience. Our conscience is less like a factory installed computer program, which operates in a fixed and predetermined way, and more like a seed that is planted in us, which we must nourish and help grow, or else neglect and let decay.

It's Not "My" Truth, it's "The" Truth

What if we just make up morality for ourselves?  You can have your "truth," and I'll have mine. That way we can all be considered moral and avoid having to deal with others who try to impose their morality on us. The problem with this idea is that morality, far from only concerning the individual, is primarily a relational concept, so it is found in the interactions between people. While moral relativism might sound very appealing, especially to young people today with the countless temptations they face, no one can actually live as a moral relativist. No justice system can be founded on the statement, "Don't impose your morality on me," for that is exactly what the purpose of a justice system is: to define and maintain an objective standard of morality, and to enforce it by penalizing people who fail to conform to the standard. If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I can't bind myself to a self-invented set of moral values and duties. When the going gets tough and a difficult moral decision is set before me, I will inevitably lower my standards and justify my actions to myself – being accountable to only yourself is like grading your own essays in college ("How about that, another A!"). This quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI effectively summarizes the pitfall of moral relativism, especially in education:
Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own 'ego'.
Morality is Not a Democracy

We've seen that we can't make up morality for ourselves. But what about society? Surely whole populations of peoples can work together and agree on what is moral, then make laws that reflect those decisions and enforce the laws. This idea is known as "social contract theory," which proposes that humans choose to be moral because it is necessary in order for society to function properly. Unfortunately, we humans have a poor track record in trying to establish a social contract of morality, including the infamous and horrifying consequences of the radical ideological and political movements of the 20th century. On an even more fundamental level, can one individual make moral judgements that I am obligated to conform myself to? I think most would say, "Of course not!" The reality is, society is nothing more than a large group of individuals, and simply adding more insufficient sources of morality together does not a sufficient source make. If one man is wrong, getting 300 million people to agree with him won't make him right – truth is qualitative, not quantitative. Since I cannot bind even myself to my own subjective standard of morality, it follows that other people cannot bind me to their standard, no matter how many of them there may be. If literally everyone in the world somehow bought into the idea that it was morally permissible to torture an innocent child for entertainment, would it then become right? What percentage of people have to agree on something before it becomes true? This is what makes utilitarianism so terrifying, because if torturing that child brought the "most happiness to the largest number of people," then we would not only be justified in doing it, we would be obligated. Clearly, what a group of people may be taught or convinced is moral cannot constitute real and objective moral values and duties. At this point, some people will cite examples of tribes of indigenous peoples who violate taboos of civilized societies, by acts such as cannibalism and human sacrifice, and claim that these examples prove that morality is nothing more than the collective creation of a given population. However, I find such examples to be exceptions that prove the rule.  If an entire society can be mistaken about matters of science or mathematics, which are real and objective, then the same error is possible in matters of morality. 

The House Built on Rock

So, what can the foundation of objective moral values and duties be? If it is not a product of the evolutionary process, or of personal opinion, or of social norms, or of some combination of the three, then what is it? Where does it come from? Does it even exist? The only explanation of the existence of objective moral values and duties, which are real and binding on everyone, regardless of time, place and culture, is that God created them. If God is real, and He created human beings for a purpose, namely, to conform their wills to His so that they might flourish in this life and be eventually fully united with Him in eternal life, then it makes sense that there would be a right and wrong way of going about that process of conformity, and of helping others to achieve the same end. This is the mission and purpose of the Church, not to impose her morality, but to propose Christ's, to hold him up to all people as "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), so that they may achieve the end for which they were created – to love and to be loved.

Let us give thanks to God for revealing His perfect moral law to us, by writing it on our hearts, teaching it to us in the Sacred Scriptures, and most especially, by revealing it in its fulness through His Son, Jesus Christ, who established His Church, which is "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15), in order that we might be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:13). Thank you for reading, and God Bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Sources:

Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version,                   Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994.             Print.
        

2 comments:

  1. I am a mother of one raised by a single mother who rarely attended church, and ultimately felt as if she was "being forced" to go. When we had gone, it was to an old Lutheran Church of which didn't last, and so I was left to determine on my own, (had yet to meet my biological father) who my Father was.. Needless to say, my first real understanding of His unconditional love..

    I cannot tell you the lasting impression this had on me.. Share it, read, re-read and read it through once more.. Perhaps most of you with the time/attention span to read it in its entirety will truly not only become moved, but realize that's it.. What we should incessantly teach our children.. Religious or not, you have a brain, that knows right from wrong- however is your heart telling you otherwise, and courage to stand up for what you believe in! Let's not forget how we ALL POSSESS THE ABILITY daily to impact someone's life/day/week/month for the better.. Imagine the love..
    ...giftofanarticle ...

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  2. Thank you sincerely for your comments! I agree completely with your ideas about teaching our children and being bold about what we believe.
    Changing the world for the better is not a huge, concerted, and complicated social movement, but the decisions of individual people doing their best in ordinary life situations. God Bless!

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