Grey areas in ethics and morals

“If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” – William James

“Man dem things ain’t right”. This Bajan phrase reveals one of the most fundamental truths about the universe – objective moral values. Grey areas in ethics need not detain us.

Men may disagree over how many wives you can legally have. They are all agreed that you cannot forcefully take any woman you like. People everywhere and at all times have encouraged a common set of virtues – honesty, courage, respect – and discouraged certain vices. This shared understanding of the common good makes society possible.

These objective moral values – independent of human taste, opinion or culture – fit better in a theistic world view. Some will of course argue that morality is self-evident and needs no grounding. We need to make an important distinction here.

Keeping it Bajan, a teacher can “learn” students their multiplication tables. The source of that knowledge, the teacher, is distinct from what actually makes the tables true, the laws of mathematics. Even if moral truths are self-evident, we still need to account for what actually makes them true and binding.

Richard Dawkins misses this crucial distinction when he asks: “If we have independent criteria for choosing among religious moralities, why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the moral choice without the religion?”

And herein lies the rub. We want a world where objective moral values exist but we want to ground them in ourselves. Yale law professor Arthur Allen Leff wrote on this contradictory state of affairs: “What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.”

David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls perfectly frame the question largely ignored by naturalists: “What would be the objective, ontological nature of a moral principle, or moral standard, in a world where mind, soul, and person hood were completely reducible to materialistic entities?”

They ignore this question whilst conveniently retaining the language of objective morality. They wax eloquent, exhorting us to respect reproductive “rights” and sexual “orientation”. They lecture us about religious extremism and intolerance. But, they forget their philosophy.

Perhaps we should forgive them, for it is a philosophy that deserves to be forgotten. Moral exhortations or rebukes make little sense in a world view that has no adequate grounding for the objective standard by which we can distinguish between right and wrong.

On their view, we could easily dismiss any moral judgment or exhortation with the question put to Moses: “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” Naturalism’s failure to account for that which is quintessentially human – rationality and objective morality – is well documented.

Trying to save face, they assure us that we can be “good” without God. But of course anyone can be “good” when the standard is another human being. History and everyday life are full of examples by which we can measure ourselves and echo the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.”

I’m not perfect but at least I’m no Hitler you may say. The thing is, God uses a different standard, so to trust in our perceived goodness relative to others is perhaps the worst condition to be in. “All our righteousness”, as Isaiah put it, “are as “filthy rags”. The cross is, among other things, the ultimate moral ethic.

It is about a relationship with the Author of the moral law which none of us can keep, and as C. S. Lewis wrote, “none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.”

It is a place where we fully understand what it means to be human; a place where the universal cry for justice and mercy are perfectly satisfied. And who among us has never cried out for both?

— Adrian Sobers

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