Thursday, 12 January 2012

Table manners and torture

I was talking to a really nice lady yesterday about a wide range of subjects relating to God (which I will hopefully write about here soon), and we got to talking about the basis of morality. I found it quite revealing. By the way, the conversation was robust and our disagreements were frank, but the tone throughout was respectful and friendly, which is as it should be!

I asked Alison had she ever done anything wrong, and she admitted of course she had. So I asked her why those things she had done were wrong. She proceeded to give me some examples of the wrong things she'd done, but that wasn't what I was wanting, I wanted her to explain what wrong is, and give me a reason for it, i.e. I wanted a definition of wrong, not examples.

So Alison said that going against social norms is wrong. However, this is a pretty shaky foundation upon which to try to ground the whole moral enterprise, and I think that emerged in the discussion. I asked her then was it wrong to buy and sell humans just because they were a different colour. She said that today that's wrong because society has agreed that it's wrong, but she can't make a judgment about societies in the past! Now I have to say, when I hear this sort of thing I really feel that people are just defending turf for the sake of argument and are not being honest with their moral intuitions. We don't look back to a time when black people were bought and sold like cattle and say "We can't make a judgment". We look back and say "That was wrong!" And that is why it had to change!

You see, according to Alison's view, it would have to be the case that moral reformers were, by definition, wrong, because they were going against the social norms!  Imagine!  These great reformers thought the prevailing standards in society were wrong, that society needed to improve, that laws were unjust, and that the treatment of certain people was unfair, but little did they know that, according to Alison's view taken to its logical conclusion, the reformers were wrong, because they were violating the only moral absolute - "Thou shalt not transgress the norms of society".  You can't talk about anything needing to improve because that means things use to be worse, which means you're using some standard outside society to evaluate societies, and on her view there is no standard!  Things can't get better if there's no objective standard above all societies and over all time.  There's nothing unjust, because the only laws are ones we make and there's no law above that saying ours isn't right.

What this leads to is this, the person who tortures his child is on a par with the person who belches at the table, neither of them are obeying the social norms, and that (and as far as Alison's view was concerned - only that) is what makes their actions wrong. There is no law outside of what we created, there are no obligations other than what society imposes. What makes it interesting is that so many people with atheistic beliefs really resent Christians forcing their morality on other people, yet on an atheistic worldview that's precisely what happens - if you're going to have any laws it involves humans forcing their morality on others, because there is no morality other than what we invent.

I asked her this, if society said a parent should be free to torture a child if that parent wants to, would that make torturing children ok? She said it was a ridiculous example and would never happen. I agreed it was a ridiculous example, and would probably never happen, but tried to show that there was nothing in her view of morality that could or would stop it. I was just getting in the car of her worldview and driving it as far as I could before it crashed against the wall of reality.  If society were to say it's ok to torture babies she just has to shrug her shoulders, hold her nose, change her views and get on board, because according to her the only thing that makes an action wrong is if it goes against social norms.

In drawing the threads of this part of our discussion to a close I tried to show Alison that the Bible has a far better explanation that matches reality by agreeing with our moral experience - God has created us in His image, He has written the work of His law upon our hearts, and we are morally guilty because we have broken His law.  The message of the Gospel, and only the message of the Gospel, provides a Substitute for the guilty in the Lord Jesus Christ, and if we acknowledge our guilt and turn to the Lord we will be saved.