Friday, November 18, 2016

How Do We Know What Is Right?

A few weeks ago, we looked at the Teleological Argument (TA) for the existence of God. As we saw there, purpose points to a Creator. Nature has goals and shows order, which only make sense if there was an intelligence to cause them. Once we have that established, it allows us to go a little deeper and consider the Moral Argument (MA) for the existence of God.

Morality as Purpose

The MA follows on the TA by focusing on a particular way of looking at purpose. If something is fulfilling its purpose, it is said to be “good,” and if it is not, then it is “bad.” Of course, morality fully understood is a uniquely human thing. However, even animals and inanimate objects can be viewed as good or bad depending on their health or function. For example, a kitchen pot with a hole in the bottom could be called bad because it does not fulfill the purpose of holding water. It is not at fault for that, but it does fall short of its ideal. It is imperfect.

So another way of saying all of this is that everything pursues its own perfection. The closer it gets, the better it is. Anything that misses the mark loses value. And hopefully that makes the link between teleology and morality clearer. When we do what we are supposed to do, we are good. Doing the opposite is evil.

Relativism and Morality

Some people argue that these concepts are merely culturally determined. They refuse to see purpose in the universe because it would require a Creator, and therefore they must also deny the concept of a transcendent moral law. They say that our concepts of good and evil are merely a human invention. There is no absolute moral good that comes from outside society. Instead, each society builds its conventions up to the point that they become unquestionable. However, those rules do not apply to people from other societies.

There is a partial truth in that. We drive on the right side of the road here, while in many other countries, they drive on the left. That is a mere social convention. Driving on the left here would be bad, while doing it in the UK is correct. But the problem is how superficial that is. No one thinks it is wrong for countries to have different ways of controlling their traffic. What everyone can agree on, however, is that it is wrong to drive into oncoming traffic no matter where you are.

Which helps to illustrate the problem with those theories which challenge the concept of the moral law. Relativism depends upon individual illustrations to show shallow differences between cultures, and ignores the deeper truths all cultures share. No matter where you go, groups of people everywhere have a conception of right and wrong. The forms they recognize can vary, but the principles underlying them do not. All societies have laws, based one way or another on helping people live at peace, and with means to punish those who selfishly break it. Good and evil are inescapable.

They are, in fact, inherent to relativism. The relativist worldview says that there is no whole truth to know, no absolute conception of right and wrong. As a result, we should not try to force our culturally-derived systems onto others. The contradiction should be obvious. Their claim that there is no absolute truth, is viewed as an absolute truth. And their vision of tolerance, which says we should not impose our idea of the good on others, is an imposition of their idea of good on those with whom they disagree. They do exactly what they demand others stop. In so doing, they show that we all think in terms of right and wrong. They are inherent to human nature. And since that is one truth we can know for certain, it stands to reason there might be others. We have a responsibility to investigate them, not to merely pretend that the differences do not matter. And after all, they only seem not to matter so long as they do not affect us. Once someone does wrong to us, relativism tends to go out the window.

The point in all of this is that we can see that good and evil are more than man-made illusions. Nothing that is inherent can be a construct. And, like all other purposes, they had to have come from somewhere. The moral law demands a Moral Lawgiver. If the difference between right and wrong has been determined by the will of the one who made the universe and everything in it, then it makes the most sense to pursue that will. Disagreements over what the Lawgiver wants do not change the fact that there must be one. Our ability to tell if something is as it should be leaves no other rational alternative. If you claim to know anything, or to think of one thing as preferable to another, you are implicitly acknowledging it.

Before moving on, allow me to offer a word on tolerance. Relativists define tolerance as leaving room for all the world’s various truths, since we cannot know or claim to know what is right for all people at all times. As we have seen, however, that is in and of itself a claim to absolute truth. Relativism’s version of tolerance is therefore patronizing. It is claiming to know better than everyone else, and to merely permit them to continue in their delusions. That is not tolerance. It is arrogance. True tolerance is the willingness to admit that humans are individuals with free will, and that they must be allowed to make up their own minds. It does not mean we should give up every effort to know and argue for the truth.

God and Evil

Part of the MA, then, is in showing that morality is a fact of the universe, and one which must come from outside of the material of the universe. It is, in that sense, teleological. But another aspect of it is attempting to explain why there is evil at all. Why is there pain, suffering, and death?  This question is assumed to have three answers. Either there is no God, life is meaningless, and good and evil do not exist; or, there is a God, but He is not good; or, God is good, but He is powerless to stop evil.

No God

We have already dealt with the first possibility. A Moral Lawgiver must exist. If He did not, there would be no way to judge anything as good or bad at all. Our ability to have experiences of pleasure and pain, and to recognize the former as preferable to the latter, cannot come from a blind, chaotic universe. It would have no way to produce or maintain those categories. The ability to argue for any type of truth depends on supernatural intelligence creating truth in the first place.

Cruel God

The second possibility recognizes this, at least implicitly, but tries to say that evil is present because the Creator is cruel. This is really the most current and influential form of modern atheism, which I prefer to call antitheism. These people say they do not think God exists, but are often quick to point out the things they think He has done wrong. The problem is, what is their point of reference? If there is no God, then He cannot be guilty of the crimes of which they accuse them. If He does exist, they cannot be crimes. Remember, for something to be evil, it must break the purpose for which it was made. God is the one who establishes that purpose. He is the source of the highest standard. In fact, He Himself is the standard. A thing can only be evil to the extent it is different from what He intended. Otherwise, we could not recognize it as such. When things go wrong, it cannot be God’s fault. If not for Him, we could not tell they were wrong in the first place.

Weak God

The final possibility is the most difficult one, though it is not commonly held. It is difficult to believe in a powerless God. On its face, it seems like a ridiculous concept. It does seem to offer a solution, however. Evil exists, and only the existence of God can explain it. Also, God must be good, or evil would not be known as evil. However, an all-powerful and good God would not allow evil to exist. Therefore, God must not be powerful enough to stop evil. He wants things to be right, but He cannot make them be that way. He is limited.

There are a few problems with this view as well, however. First, it assumes far too much. Yes, evil exists, and yes, God has not eliminated it. Yet. To claim that He cannot is to claim to know that He never will. It is an implicit assertion of omniscience. The truth is that none of us knows with absolute certainty what the future holds. We can assume a great deal about it. We can also believe things on faith. However, to go beyond that, as this position does, is to claim an aspect of divinity. Those who hold it act as if they know the entirety of the future, doing so on no resources other than their own.

The second problem is one shared by all the others. In every case, the focus is on God. He isn’t there, or He isn’t good, or He isn’t powerful. Evil is somehow or another His fault. What they fail to consider is that evil may have another source. Remember what evil is: it is what happens when something fails to conform to its purpose. This is what makes morality so uniquely human. We have free will. Unlike everything else, we have the power to refuse to conform to our purpose. We are able to refuse to obey God’s will and do what is right.

The Source of Evil

This is, we are, the source of evil in the universe. God could have created us as mere puppets. Instead, He made us in His image. He gave us the ability to decide whether we would love Him or not. That, after all, is precisely what love requires. If it is not freely given, then it does not exist. Instead, it is obligation and control. But if there is a choice to love, then its opposite is also available.

Unfortunately, that is the route humanity has chosen. Each of us, in innumerable individual ways, chooses to act selfishly and to rebel against what God has established. Because God is good, and because He is powerful, that rebellion comes with negative consequences. That is not His fault. It is ours.

The Solution of Good

That is also how God could leave us. But because He loves us in spite of our unloving hearts, He did not abandon us to our own devices. He has made a way for us to approach Him, to freely declare our love and be freed from the burden of the evil we have made. Jesus Christ, by being sacrificed for us, has given us the opportunity to discover what is truly good. And His promise is that one day, He will fully establish it, restoring all goodness and eliminating every stain of evil forever. Those who trust in Him will share in that glorious future. Nothing wrong will remain any longer.

Morality is unavoidable. We are all born understanding the concept of right and wrong, at least for ourselves if we admit nothing else. And we all knowingly choose wrong over right, not every time, but often enough. We should stop trying to excuse ourselves from it. Instead, we should admit it, and turn to the only One who can make it right. The MA helps us put the blame where it really belongs. Only when we see our need can we find the cure. 

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