Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Christianity and moral objectivity

One thing that Christianity brings to the table morally is the existence of commandments that humans have broken. While everyone has their own definition of morality, the existence of a commandment (as opposed to, say, the Ten Suggestions) seems to suggest that this is something that human beings have to do whether they like it or not or whether they agree with it or not. So if, let's say, the President of the United States has a problem accepting the commandment not to commit adultery (I think this actually happened a few years back), if he believes in a God who gives commandments, he cannot reasonably say that his opinion of adultery is as legitimate as God's. This seems to suggest that Christianity is committed to the idea of an objective right and wrong.

This point seems to be lost on some Christians, who when questioned in polling a few years back, accepted moral relativism.

There is, of course, the further question of whether being commanded by God is what it is for an act to be moral. One possibility is this: God makes humans in such a way that they will be happy (or perhaps, happy for an eternity) only if they behave in certain ways, and then God commands what is going to be conducive to human eternal happiness. If that were true, then being commanded, by itself, doesn't create rightness.

The other point to make is that commandments are not going to settle all of the debatable philosophical issues. The Sixth Commandment says "Thou shalt not commit murder." But that leaves the question of whether, capital punishment, war, or abortion are in fact murders. Since murder is definable as intentional homicide without moral justification, the question is still open for debate as to whether capital punishment and war have moral justifications, or whether abortions (or some of them) are homicides. (I'm not saying there's no correct answer to these questions, but you have to examine the pros and cons on these issues to reach a conclusion).

2 comments:

Heuristics said...

The commandments however were given as part of a contract between the jewish people and God, not between humanity and God. They are not binding on humanity, the Noahide laws on the other hand is binding on humanity. In the NT we do find some recommendations given to non-jews, but not directly from God (not to eat blood etc).

unkle e said...

"This point seems to be lost on some Christians, who when questioned in polling a few years back, accepted moral relativism."

I think you explained this point later on when you said "commandments are not going to settle all of the debatable philosophical issues". I would probably answer in the negative a question on whether some actions are objectively wrong, but I don't regard myself as a moral relativist.

If we see the supreme ethical command as "love God and love your neighbour", with specific actions being sometimes right and sometimes wrong depending on how they apply this ethic, then it may look to the outsider to be moral relativism, but it isn't.

I don't think we christians take seriously enough a clear (to me) teaching of the NT that the OT law has passed away, been fulfilled, and is replaced by the Spirit which gives life rather than the letter which brings death. We are no longer controlled by legalism, but by walking in the Spirit and following the greatest commandment of all - and trying to apply it to the difficult examples you mention.