5. Are some things really right and wrong?

Almost everyone has a sense of right and wrong, however warped it may be, but where does it come from? Are some things really right and wrong, or are ethics just arbitrary?

What do we mean by “right and wrong”?

When we look at human behaviour, or own or others’, sometimes we describe what people actually do, but other times we describe what we think they ought to do.

What we think they should or shouldn’t do indicates what we think is right or wrong, compared to some ethical standard. Ethics involves a choice between actions or beliefs that are more or less “right”.

What makes something right or wrong?

What is the standard we measure ethics by? There are two basic views here.

Option 1: There is no objective standard

As human cultures have evolved, it was helpful to have some moral and law codes to encourage cooperative behaviour and reduce destructive behaviour. So, this view says, each culture developed its own moral code. They all agree on some things but disagree about details, and none of them is more or less right than any other. (How can any moral code be more “right” than the other when “right” is arbitrary and subjective?)

In this view, right and wrong are a convention which a culture adopts to help society to work better. If someone, or a whole culture, decides to adopt a different code, there is no external objective standard by which to judge that new code or to argue against it. It is all subjective. For example:

  • Utilitarianism bases its ethics on doing the least harm and the greatest good to the greatest number of people, but it has no objective basis for criticising someone who chooses to do harm. Adopting utilitarianism is a subjective choice.
  • Some people believe that morality is determined by what we find emotionally repugnant or uplifting, but different people find different behaviours repugnant and uplifting, so this too is highly subjective.
Can we live with this?

It is easy to argue that subjective ethics are a reasonable basis for human society and personal morality, but it is harder to live with this view.

Subjective ethics make it harder to address the big issues of the day, such as environmental degradation and climate change; sexism; domestic violence; rape and pedophilia; racism; war, torture and genocide; slavery; and homophobia. Are these things really wrong, or is that just a convention we have arbitrarily adopted? Most of us would be uncomfortable thinking that these things weren’t deeply wrong.

This can be seen clearly in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out 30 articles that protect human freedoms, such as freedom of thought, opinion, conscience and religion, and freedom from slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest. The Declaration’s principles are expressed in 18 Human Rights Treaties, most of which have been ratified by most countries.

But what gives people these rights? The Declaration simply says that these rights are based on “the dignity and worth of the human person”. But if morality is subjective, then the dignity and worth of each human person is just a convention with no objective basis.

It seems that most of us know, or feel deep down, that some things really are right and wrong, even if we haven’t found a good basis for thinking this.

Option 2: There is an objective standard

If we start from our ethical intuitions about some things being really right and wrong, we can come to the conclusion that ethics are as fundamental to the truth of the universe as is gravity, except we have a choice whether we obey the ethics or not.

But this raises two deep questions: (1) where does this standard exist and come from, and (2) how do we know what it is?

It is in seeking answers to these questions that we see a strong reason to believe in God.

If there’s no God ….

…. what makes something really right or wrong? In a physical, material universe, how do we explain objective ethics?

Mathematics is a plausible parallel. Numbers and the laws of mathematics are non-material facts about the universe, that seem to hold in every situation. There is some argument about whether mathematics is a human invention or facts about the universe that would be true even if there were no humans. But it seems that 1 + 1 would = 2 even if there was no-one here to observe it, just as gravity would “work” even if there was no-one to observe it.

Superficially, objective ethics seems to be the same. They are non-material facts about the universe that are not human inventions. However there are some significant differences.

We have rational brains that can prove the theorems of mathematics, and so we can know that they are correct. And we can observe many mathematical truths, for example, if we add 3 blocks to a pile of 4 blocks we can count 7 blocks – every time.

But it is different with ethics. We seem to have very fallible ethical intuitions which lack proof, so we cannot know exactly what is ethically true and what isn’t. In a physical, material universe, there seems to be no place for an objective ethical standard. We may be able to predict the outcomes of a given action, but we have no basis for saying that outcome is good or bad.

So it seems that in a natural material universe, we cannot find a basis for objectively true ethics, even though we would like to know it.

But if there is a God …..

…. ethics has a much stronger foundation. The world isn’t just physical and material, and ethics can be based in God.

The question then arises: Is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right? (Euthyphro’s dilemma) If the former, then ethics are arbitrary because God could have commanded the opposite. And if the latter, then there is a moral law outside and in a sense above God, and ethics therefore don’t depend on God.

I think the dilemma is easily resolved. There are laws of mathematics and logic which God is in a sense subject to. God cannot make 1 + 1 = 42, not because he isn’t powerful, but because 1 + 1 = 2 is a necessary truth that cannot be different. God “conforming” to those truths doesn’t diminish him – it would diminish him if he didn’t!

So in the same way, God’s ethical commands are based on universal and necessary ethical truths that he understands.

So why do we need God to have objective ethics? I think there are four reasons:

  1. Our moral faculties are distorted and broken, and while we can recognise some moral truths (we call that “conscience”) we are unable to fully and properly understand. And even when we can understand, we cannot be sure because we cannot prove our conclusions like we can prove the truths of mathematics. We need God’s perfect knowledge to guide us, and we need to seek that guidance.
  2. It is hard to find a place for objective ethics in a purely physical, material world. As we have seen (Reasons #1 and #2 in this series), we need God to create the universe with the physical qualities that allow life, but we also need God to create a universe where ethical statements can be objectively true.
  3. When we consider ethics, we must also consider justice. Will the perpetrators of evil actions be brought to justice? Clearly, in this world, justice is not always done. Only if God is behind ethics can we be sure of ultimate justice – together with mercy!
  4. As we saw in the previous post, without God it is hard to see how free will and genuine choice can exist. And without free choice, there can be no moral responsibility. Studies show that when people don’t believe we are free to choose, their behaviour deteriorates.

If there is an objective moral standard, what is it?

Jesus said the whole moral law could be boiled down to loving God and loving our fellow humans (Matthew 22:36-40), where love is seen as doing the best for the other. Many other moral teachers say something similar. Utilitarianism recognises the second half of this saying. Most religions teach the first half of the saying.

So I believe that is the objective ethical standard. If we apply it under the guidance of God, we will live well.

Conclusion

If we care about right and wrong and justice, we will know intuitively that some things are really right and wrong, even if we are uncertain about others. And we will know we need all the help we can get to live the way we feel we ought.

In a world without God, all of that is just an outcome of the evolution of the culture we live in, and has no objective reality. Only if there is a good God can we have confidence that some things really are right and wrong, the guidance to recognise them, and (hopefully) the help to live the way we ought.

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

Moral considerations give all a reason to examine the proposition that there is a God very seriously. For if there is no God, morality is a more perilous enterprise than if there is.

One step at a time

As we consider what it means to be human, the evidence accumulates that if we hold a naturalist or atheist view, we reduce humanity to something less than we instinctively understand and need for the proper functioning of society. The evidence of ethics adds to the evidence of consciousness and free will to point out that, for humanity to be what know in our best moments, there must be a creator God who invests us with dignity, choice and moral responsibility.

It is fortunate that there is an almost universal intuition, in atheists, agnostics and adherents to most religions, that we are living, choosing, ethical selves. This seems to me to be a strong indication that naturalism or materialism are not true, for they are not adequate to explain what we intuit and find necessary to live well.

No one of these considerations may be persuasive on its own, but together they form a strong reason to believe in God.

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Photo by James Wheeler from Pexels.

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