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If there is an absolute standard of morality, then there must be a God. Disagree? Consider the alternative.
God's existence has direct bearing on how we view morality. As Dostoyevsky so famously put it, "Without God, everything is permitted."
At first glance, this statement may not make sense. Everything is permitted? Can't there be a morality without an infinite God?
Perhaps some of the confusion is due to a murky definition of morality we owe to moral relativism. Moral relativism maintains that there is no objective standard of right and wrong existing separate and independent from humanity. The creation of moral principles stems only from within a person, not as a distinct, detached reality. Each person is the source and definer of his or her subjective ethical code, and each has equal power and authority to define morality the way he or she sees fit.
Random acts of cruelty may not be your cup of tea, but who says your standards are for everyone?
The consequences of moral relativism are far-reaching. Since all moral issues are subjective, right and wrong are reduced to matters of opinion and personal taste. Without a binding, objective standard of morality that sticks whether one likes it or not, a person can do whatever he feels like by choosing to label any behavior he personally enjoys as "good." Adultery, embezzlement, and random acts of cruelty may not be your cup of tea -- but why should that stop someone from taking pleasure in them if that is what they enjoy.
Is having an intimate relationship with a 12-year-old objectively wrong just because you don't like it?
Perhaps murder makes a serial killer feel powerful and alive. A moral relativist can say he finds murder disgusting, but that does not make it wrong -- only distasteful. Hannibal, the Cannibal, is entitled to his own preferences even if they are unusual and repugnant to most.
Popularity has nothing to do with determining absolute morality; it just makes it commonplace, like the color navy.
"But this killer is hurting others!" True. But in a world where everything is subjective, hurting an innocent person is merely distasteful to some, like eating chocolate ice cream with lasagna. Just because we may not like it doesn't make it evil. Evil? By whose standard? No one's subjective opinion is more authoritative than another's.
Although many people may profess to subscribe to moral relativism, it is very rare to find a consistent moral relativist. Just about everyone believes in some absolute truths. That absolute truth may only be that it is wrong to hurt others, or that there are no absolutes. The point is that just about everyone is convinced that there is some form of absolute truth, whatever that truth may be. Most of us, it seems, are not moral relativists.
Bertrand Russell wrote:
I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it.
Not too many of us believe that killing an innocent person is just a matter of taste that can change according to whim. Most of us think it is an act that is intrinsically wrong, regardless of what anyone thinks. According to this view, the standard of morality is an unchangeable reality that transcends humanity, not subject to our approval.
THE INFINITE SOURCE
An absolute standard of morality can only stem from an infinite source. Why is that?
When we describe murder as being immoral, we do not mean it is wrong just for now, with the possibility of it becoming "right" some time in the future. Absolute means unchangeable, not unchanging.
What's the difference?
My dislike for olives is unchanging. I'll never start liking them. That doesn't mean it is impossible for my taste to change, even though it's highly unlikely. Since it could change, it is not absolute. It is changeable.
The term "absolute" means without the ability to change. It is utterly permanent, unchangeable.
Think of something absolute. Take for example an icon of permanence and stability –- the Rock of Gibraltar. "Get a piece of the rock" -- it lasts forever!
But does it really? Is it absolute?
No. It is undergoing change every second. It is getting older, it is eroding.
The nature of absolute is a bit tricky to grasp because we find ourselves running into the same problem of our finite selves attempting to perceive the infinite, a topic we have discussed in a previous article in this series. Everything that exists within time undergoes change. That's what time is -- a measurement of change. In Hebrew, shanah means "year," sharing the same root shinah, "change."
If everything in the finite universe is undergoing change, where can we find the quality of absolute?
If everything in the finite universe is undergoing change -- since it exists within time -- where can we find the quality of absolute?
Its source cannot be in time, which is constantly undergoing change. It must be beyond time, in the infinite dimension. Only God, the infinite being that exists beyond time, is absolute and unchangeable.
'I am God, I do not change.' (Malachi 3:6)
Therefore an absolute standard of morality can exist only if it stems from an infinite dimension -- a realm that is eternal, beyond time, with no beginning and no end.
THE DEATH OF EDUCATION
In addition to the demise of morality, moral relativism inevitably leads to the death of education and genuine open-mindedness. The thirst for real learning comes from the recognition that the truth is out there waiting to be discovered -- and I am all the more impoverished with its absence.
Professor Alan Bloom writes in his book "The Closing of the American Mind,"
It is the rarest of occurrences to find a youngster who has been infused by this [liberal arts] education with a longing to know all about China or the Romans or the Jews.
All to the contrary. There is an indifference to such things, for relativism has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for the good life...
...out there in the rest of the world is a drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative, whereas here we can create all the life-styles we want. Our openness means we do not need others. Thus what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing. No longer is there a hope that there are great wise men in other places and times who can reveal the truth about life...
If everything is relative, then it makes no difference what anyone thinks. Ideas no longer matter. With no absolute standard of right and wrong or truth and falsehood, the pursuit of wisdom becomes nonsensical. What are we searching for? If no idea is more valid than another, there is no purpose in re-evaluating one's belief system and being open to exploring new concepts -- since there is no possibility of ever being wrong.
A common argument often heard for supporting relativism is that in the world at large we see a plethora of differing positions on a wide range of moral issues. Try to find one issue all cultures universally agree to!
Professor Bloom addresses this contention:
History and the study of cultures do not teach or prove that values or cultures are relative ... the fact that there have been different opinions about good and bad in different times and places in no way proves that none is true or superior to others. To say that it does so prove is as absurd as to say that the diversity of points of view expressed in a college bull session proves there is no truth ... the natural reaction is to try to resolve the difference, to examine the claims and reasons for each opinion.
Only the unhistorical and inhuman belief that opinions are held for no reason would prevent the undertaking of such an exciting activity.
THE NATURE OF DEBATE
The plethora of disagreements demonstrates exactly the opposite point. If everything is relative, what on earth are we arguing about?
Imagine walking down the street and you hear a ferocious argument taking place behind a door. People are yelling at each other in a fit of rage. You ask a bystander what the commotion is all about. He tells you this is a Ben & Jerry's ice cream store and they're fighting over what is the best flavor of ice cream.
Heated debates occur only because we believe there are right and wrong positions.
Real debates and disagreements occur only because we believe there are right and wrong positions, not mere preferences of flavors. Think of a time you experienced moral outrage. The force behind that anger is the conviction that your position is the correct one. Matters of preference, like music and interior design, do not provoke moral outrage.
What provokes our moral outrage? Injustice? Cruelty? Oppression? There is the sense that an absolute standard of morality is being violated, an objective standard that transcends humanity, that stems from an infinite and absolute Being.