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(Last Updated: 29 Nov 1999 )
This page is a discussion of had with a good friend of mine about the existence or otherwise of an objective Moral Law. My friend's comments are in <brackets, in red text>. My comments are in normal text.
For sure, the morals of a society change, but that doesn't mean morality itself changes. If a society embraces genocide, that doesn't make genocide right. I think that morality transcends cultures and individuals. Just because an individual thinks rape is OK, doesn't make it right. Murder is always wrong, regardless of where you live. And anyway I can't think of any culture that doesn't honour honesty, fairness, bravery, integrity, justice etc.
So yep, I think there is definitely a moral
law. The only tricky thing is defining it in detail and applying it (and
that's where revelation comes in, but that's another story...).
> We believe that morals in society do exist. However, our law is not only based on morals but also western ethics. <
I agree that the morality we see around us is based in part on Western ethics. But that doesn't mean that there is not some objective morality that transcends our own cultural world view. Also note that I am not talking about "the law" in a legal sense, but rather about the reality that some things are truly right and some things are truly wrong, for all people in all places at all times.
One thing that I think I should clarify is that I am not saying that our Western culture is the ultimate moral authority. I don't think there is any culture that has got it all right, because they all fall short of the ideal moral standard.
> Therefore the morality we see will be coloured by western philosophies. <
OK, but if you could have a morality that was not coloured by western philosophies (or any other form of culturalism), wouldn't that then be a better morality? And if there is such a thing as better morality, then that implies a best morality, which I would call the Moral Law. Do you agree with my reasoning here?
> NO. Any morality free from cultural bias is no morality but a form of baseless crap. <
Well, here is an example of a morality free
from cultural bias: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'
This can be applied to any culture. It was put forward by a much
smarter guy than me. Perhaps you should be careful what you call
> How can you decide what is morally right if you have nothing to base it on, and if you do base it on something, whatever you have based it on is already culturally 'tainted'. Basically for it to be a Moral law there must be a form of right and wrong, which are culturally based. <
Well, I suggest that right and wrong are not culturally based, but transcend cultures. There is an underlying morality that applies to all cultures. There may be cultures that have differences between their moralities, but there is nothing like a total difference. If you compare the moral teaching of such diverse groups as the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, you will see that they are in fact very similar to each other and to the morality of our own culture. I can't think of any culture that has taught that honesty, justice, courage, wisdom, co-operation, self control and hope were all evil, or one that has taught that lying, theft, murder, rape, cowardice, stupidity, addiction, despair and selfishness were all good. This means that there is a common morality that goes beyond cultural boundaries.
Again, the tricky bit is knowing the details exactly what the Moral Law is made up of. But I am certain that it exists.
> Yes I agree, if from our cultural perspective we could define moral law it would be so much easier to prove you wrong. <
OK, free of charge I'll take a stab at defining
the Moral Law - treat others as you would like to be treated. There
is a whole lot more to it than that, but this "Golden Rule" is right at
the heart of morality. And as I mentioned above, this is something
that can be applied regardless of your cultural perspective.
> Different cultures have different views on what is bad and really bad so it would be impossible to have an overall moral law for these reasons. For example Islam fundamentalists have really crazy morals, violence for religious principles is accepted. <
You give an excellent illustration here, which I think proves my point. If morality is truly relative, or truly dependent upon culture, then you have no right to say that Islamic fundamentalists are wrong to use violence for religious purposes. But by critiquing Islam here you are saying that there is some higher standard to judge their values against. So it looks like you are agreeing with me that there is an objective Moral Law, a morality that exists despite what different cultures think.
> No, I think you misunderstand the example. Moslem fundamentalists see no wrong in killing people for religious reasons. We do. Different cultures. Different morals. <
To me, this situation is a bit like believing in Father Christmas (this may sound silly, but bear with me). No matter how sincerely you believe in Father Christmas you can't make him really exist. And no matter how sincerely the extremist Moslems might believe that killing for religion is OK, they can't change the fact that it is not. This is an example of one culture's morality (ours) being closer to the Moral Law than another's.
> We judge them by ours and so judge them wrong by our culture's morality, not by their culture's. If there was an overall objective morality, which one would it judge right???? <
There is an objective morality, and
it judges that the extremist Moslem approach is wrong, because they fail
in this example to recognize the self-evident rights and dignity of human
Tell me what you think about this: Aztec society thought that human sacrifice was good, but Jewish society thought that it was wrong. Without a Moral Law to judge between them, how do you know which is right?
> True, an interesting question and one which illustrates my argument beautifully. Aztecs judged by Aztec morals are all good, and Jews by Jewish morals are all good. But judge them by each other and you have problems, both are wrong looking at them through each others' eyes. And by our eyes, well the Aztecs were wrong, but the Jews would stone people to death at the drop of a hat, which we would also deem wrong. So overall there cannot be an objective moral law as morals are dictated by the culture, circumstance and level of society in which we were raised. <
Again this is similar to what we have already
looked at. Societies make mistakes, just like people do. The
Aztecs weren't just helplessly trapped in their culture, they were mistaken
about how they ought to live. If you were brought up in that culture,
are you sure that you would willingly participate in this sort of evil?
Is cultural conditioning so powerful that you can't break out of it?
Besides, there is a clear moral difference between the Jewish practices
and what the Aztecs did: the Aztecs sacrificed innocent children while
the Jews punished guilty criminals (and not just at the drop of a hat either).
> There cannot be an objective culturally independent moral law as you describe, because all morals are based upon circumstance and upbringing. <
Well, do you think that the morals of the culture and circumstances that you live in are perfect? Because if you think they are not perfect, then you have just proved that your own moral standards are not based upon your culture but are based on something else, something higher. And even if you do think our cultural morals are perfect, society itself disagrees with you, as can be seen by the continuous introduction of new laws to try to improve things.
> A prime example of this is the idea of equality/racism. The accepted Westernized view of the matter is that racism is wrong. And we prove this by ostracizing all those who believe otherwise, e.g.. the Ku Klux Klan and the World Church of the Creator. Yet these are splinter groups not the view of the whole society. In Japan, and some other parts of Asia the entire culture is racist, a Japanese company will generally avoid employing a white person for other than PR relations with other white people. They accept this as part of their culture, see no problem with it, and the problem I have with this is neither do we. We accept that 'that's just the way the Japanese are'. <
The question is "should we accept racism?" It looks like you personally do not accept it. Neither do I. If you had the opportunity to talk with a bunch of open-minded racists and could show them that all people are created equal and have basic human rights, don't you think most of them would change their views? Don't you think it's possible to transcend your culture and see through something that is truly wrong? A lot of people who, perhaps due to culture and upbringing, used to be racist (perhaps even many Japanese, such as immigrants to America) have done exactly that.
We can simplify the argument by replacing the concept of racism with the concept of belief in Father Christmas, kind of like we did earlier. Pretend that in a part of Asia the entire culture believes in the existence of Father Christmas along with all his flying reindeer and his ability to travel around the world at supersonic speeds. Now it is obvious that just because they believe in him this doesn't mean he exists. A culture that does not believe in Father Christmas will be more "right" than our hypothetical Asian one that does. In the same way, just because some groups think that racism is OK doesn't mean that it really is.
Have you heard of the law of non-contradiction?
It simply means that two mutually contradictory things cannot both be true.
If you hold up a fruit and say "This is an apple", and I see it and say
"No, it's an orange", we can't both be right (although we could both be
wrong - it might be a banana!). Applying this concept to morality,
think of the following statement: "Rape is a good thing". Now that
statement is either true or false. If I understand your argument
correctly, you are saying that it could be both true and false at the same
time, depending on culture, but in reality, the truth or falsehood of that
statement does not depend on where you live.
> If raised without a cultural base or even trying to think without a cultural base, it becomes apparent there is no morality but that which we (society) have created. Therefore there could be no morality without the cultural input, and to push things a bit, it could be said morality is a product of culture as well. <
Nope. Our opinions about morality might be a product of our culture, but morality itself is not. Virtually the entire world, regardless of circumstance and upbringing, thinks that Hitler was evil and that Mother Teresa was good. The fact that almost the entire world can agree on what is evil in a case such as this is strong evidence that there is a common, culturally independent morality. No matter where you live or how you were brought up or what the culture is like, you would still feel upset if someone were to walk up to you, hit you with a baseball bat, and steal your wallet. Every reasonable person knows in their conscience that that sort of thing is just plain wrong.
This brings us to an important point: morality is not something we make. It is something we discover. For example, if you see your friend being raped and decide to rescue her, are you making the rules of morality or obeying them? If morality is a product of culture, then you can make rape wrong by opposing it. And that means that you could make rape right by loving it. But nothing you can do changes the fact that rape really is wrong, so when you decide to try to rescue your friend, you are simply doing what you ought to do, according to the Moral Law.
Similarly, if our country were to pass a law saying that murder, theft, perjury, rape, treason, torture and adultery are all good, would such a law actually change the reality? It might help some people to feel less guilty about what they do, but it doesn't change the fact that they still should feel guilty.
And one more point along these lines: if
what you say is true, then when slavery was outlawed in the American south
after the Civil War, at that instant slavery changed from being right to
being wrong, because the prevailing cultural opinion changed. But
right and wrong don't just instantaneously reverse themselves like that
- slavery has always been wrong, but it just took some Americans a while
to realize that.
In a lot of what you say you seem to imply that our moral opinions are conditioned by our society and culture. But there are several things wrong with this point of view. The first, which I have touched on already, is that society doesn't give us morals, it just gives us opinions about morals, opinions which are not necessarily correct. The second is that culture does not condition us like lab rats, it teaches us like human beings. We have a brain and a conscience and we can use them to make our own moral judgements. The fact that there is disagreement within society about all sorts of moral issues (e.g. abortion, genetically modified food, euthanasia, etc.) means than we are not conditioned by society and are free to form our own opinions. The third thing is that some of the opinions that we hold may actually be objectively true. The opinion that Aztecs are wrong could be one of these (I say it is one of these).
You are saying there is no way to decide which is right in any conflict of moralities. By this you imply that there was no moral reason for the Allies to oppose Adolf Hitler in World War 2. Was Germany's genocide OK because that was just their culture? I know that you would have a preference if you had to choose between the Nazis and the Allies. Surely you must realize that this preference is not because of your upbringing but because the Nazi aggression really was bad.
> What we see is always coloured and we always have preconceived ideals based on the world which we see around us. For example, recycling as we see it is not morally wrong but others even within our same culture will see it as morally wrong. <
Yeah, but those preconceived ideals are opinions,
not facts. That doesn't mean that the facts are not out there.
You could go out and collect a whole bunch of facts about the benefits
of recycling and show that those who think it is wrong are mistaken.
Just because people disagree about something does not mean there is no
objective truth. If you and I disagree about whether or not the earth
is a sphere, this is not proof that the earth has no shape. If you
disagree with a skinhead about whether we should treat people equally and
fairly, this does not prove that genuine equality and fairness do not exist.
Here is how I would sum up your argument, and all that we have discussed so far. Hopefully it is a fair summation. You say:
(1). If cultures differ about morality, then
morality is not objective, but is actually subjective and relative.
(2). Cultures do differ about morality.
(3). Therefore morality is subjective and relative.
A response to this would be to say that:
The problem with (1) is that apparent differences about morals can just be because one or other of the cultures is mistaken. Cultures can be wrong, just like individual people can. You must agree that the Aztecs were not infallibly right to sacrifice children. If they were right, then we should still be doing it now. The thing that really is relative to culture is opinions about what is right and wrong.
The problem with (2) is that while cultures do differ in some of their moral opinions, there is an underlying morality that applies to all cultures. As I mentioned earlier, no two cultures have ever existed which taught a totally different set of values, as you can see when you think about how they respond to things like honesty, justice, courage, theft, murder and rape.
Given these problems, the conclusion is wrong
about morality being subjective and relative.
Finally, consider the following situation.
In India, the cultural custom was to burn alive the widow of a deceased
husband at the husband's funeral. If you were the British administrator
in India in the 1800s, would you let this practice continue?
It seems to me that this whole idea of morality
and relativism might be more important than many people think, because
it can affect the whole way in which you live your life.
A reference work that I found useful in this discussion was The Handbook of Christian Apologetics, by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli.
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