WHO DETERMINES WHAT IS RIGHT AND WRONG?
There are many opinions floating around about what is right and what is wrong. With all the moral confusion in our society, it’s difficult to figure out what people should actually believe. No matter where you go, questions like these arise: Doesn’t everyone have the right to determine what is right and wrong for himself or herself? Isn’t everything relative to the individual? These questions and others like them are broadcast on blogs and websites and spewed from secular universities.
Without question, relativism is one of the foremost “isms” of our time. It claims that there are no absolutes and that anyone who thinks there are absolutes is absolutely wrong. But isn’t this one of the basic problems with relativism? Absolutely. Here are some others.
- It is self-defeating to claim that one is absolutely certain there are no absolutes. The claim that one should never use the word never just used the word never in that claim. Likewise, the claim that one should always avoid using the word always just used the word always.
- The assertion that the world is getting worse (or better) is not possible unless one has a moral absolute to know what is best. Even simple judgments about how good (or evil) the world is depends on some objective standard outside ourselves by which such judgments can be made. Without a moral absolute, all we could say is that things are changing. We could not say that more poverty, abuse, exploitation, slavery, and abortion would make the world worse, or that more peace, harmony, and love would make it better.
- Moral comparisons, which we make all the time, depend on moral absolutes. To even think or pose the question: What is the best? would have no meaning. How can we say that Jesus Christ is better than Osama Bin Laden unless we have some objective standard by which to know which is better?
- Moral disputes imply universal moral laws. We can’t say something is right and something else is wrong unless there is a standard by which to measure them. Thus, there must be an ultimate standard that measures the two so they can be compared.
- We didn’t invent moral laws any more than we invented mathematical or physical laws. Newton did not invent gravity; he merely discovered it. No one invented the laws of logic; they are just part of the furniture of the universe. Likewise, moral laws were not invented; they were discovered.
- Universal moral guilt shows there are universal moral laws. Why do we make excuses for our faults unless we know we are wrong? C. S. Lewis brilliantly unpacked this truth in his classic book Mere Christianity. Lewis points out that we are inclined to behave a certain way to avoid breaking certain moral principles we know are not meant to be broken.
- Following moral laws cannot be herd instinct since we sometimes choose duty over instinct—as when a person chooses to rush into a burning building to save a child. The ultimate demonstration of this is when a person sacrifices his or her own life to save another.
- We all find some things evil. For example, genocide, child abuse, and slavery are universally frowned upon. But how do we know they are evil unless there is a moral law that informs us they are wrong?
- Our real moral principles are not discovered by our actions (but by our reactions) since we are all imperfect and do not always do what we know we ought to do. This is why we can’t determine moral laws by what we do to others. But there are many things we don’t want others to do to us (such as lying, cheating, abusing, and killing). So moral laws are based on what we want others to do to us. Jesus said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12).
- The same basic moral codes are found in all major cultures. C. S. Lewis made a collection of them in his excellent book on moral absolutes titled The Abolition of Man. In the appendix of this book, Lewis collated moral principles from diverse cultures. What he found was that rather than being totally diverse, the moral principles were strikingly similar. This included respect for the property and personhood of others.6 As the great philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, we should not will anything that cannot be willed universally for all people. This categorical imperative includes the prohibition against lying and murder.
In the end, who determines right and wrong? God does. The moral lawgiver determines the moral laws, and they are written in his Word (Exod. 20) and on our hearts (Rom. 2:12–15). Therefore, we are all obligated to obey such moral laws.