Morality is all about differentiating between right and wrong, good behaviour and bad behaviour. Being able to tell the difference is so important as it affects how we treat people. Those in society who act in a way defined as ‘bad’ are condemned and punished. Those who do ‘good’ are praised and rewarded.
So how do we define what one ‘ought’ to do and ‘ought not’ do?
For Christians there is no difficulty here – Jesus said that there is “there is none good but one, that is, God” (Matthew 19:17). This means anything in line with God’s character and anything God decrees is good.
He is the sole Creator of the world and thus, knows how it all works. His wisdom, power and love are transcendent and so who are we to question what God says is right and wrong?
For Christians, morality is objective. It always applies to all people in all places.
You may disagree. After all, there are as many moral systems in the world as there are philosophies, religions and cultures. You may think you don’t need to believe in God to be a moral person.
Well, you’d be right. You don’t need to believe in God to be moral, in the same way that you don’t need to believe in air to breathe.
Just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean you don’t operate under it. You’d simply be doing so without knowing why, or believing you are doing so for the wrong reason. You don’t need to believe in air to breathe, but without air, you wouldn’t be breathing. You don’t need to believe in God to be moral, but without God, morality wouldn’t exist, because there would be no objective source.
For this very reason, many question the idea that morality is objective. Humanists, for example, and other secular bodies would typically say that morality is subjective, that it depends on the individual’s own ideas of what is right and wrong. But this would lead to a number of problems.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead, and we have killed him.” By this, he was drawing out the logical conclusion that if God is taken out of the equation, the role of moral arbiter shifts from God to man.
This has been the sentiment of post-enlightenment thought, without the recognition of the impact upon society. If it is up to man to decide what is right and wrong, how do we do it? What do we base our morals upon?
Some might suggest a utilitarian approach – that we aim to maximise pleasure/wellbeing within society. The problem is, you can always ask “why”?
Why is it ‘right’ to maximise pleasure in society? We might feel that it is important. We might desire it deep within our souls. But does that make it right? The reality is that our desires and feelings do not lead us to an ‘ought’ – only a thought.
If we want to know what is right, we need an objective source. Without that, anything goes so long as we ‘feel’ it’s right. To impose your own feelings over another’s is something we would consider immoral. And yet, if you believe morality is subjective, that is the very thing you’re doing when you condemn the murderer.
An example to display the problem; I don’t like ketchup. I wouldn’t consider it morally bad to eat. Nor would I want to ban it or punish anyone who ate it. It’s just something I find distasteful.
To impose rules on others based on how I feel about ketchup would be unfair. It’s the same with murder. I may not like it. I may find it repulsive. I may have a book of reasons as to why I don’t want people to murder; and yet to impose murder restrictions on those who want to murder would make as much sense as imposing ketchup-eating restrictions on those who want to eat ketchup.
You may push back and say, eating ketchup doesn’t affect anyone, whereas murder does. But then we could just go back to the question of why – why does the fact that it affects someone’s wellbeing make it ‘wrong’?
Again, you may not like it. You may find it distasteful. But that doesn’t make it bad. Only distasteful to you personally. Why should the murderer adhere to your subjective moral code?
Some may think that what has been made law is morally right. But this again has problems. It’s just another way of saying ‘might makes right’. The strongest, or the historical winners get to decide.
If this were true, then it would mean that slavery and racial segregation was morally right during the time of the civil rights movement, and those who opposed it were in the wrong. It would mean that the oppression of the Jews in Nazi Germany was a good thing to be adhered to. But this is of course unacceptable.
For these reasons, morality must be objective. Those who believe it to be subjective live inconsistently with their worldview whenever they condemn the murderer, slaver or oppressor.
As a Christian, I can not only inherently understand that these things are wrong as most do but can also justify the punishment of evil and rewarding of good as something objectively right and true.
The Bible says we “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Man is fallible and emotional. Easily swayed by feelings and pride. God on the other hand is infallible, trustworthy and unchanging. Thus, the Christian worldview allows for certainty when it comes to moral issues.