RESPONDblogs: Does Society Decide What Is Moral?

chaplin

In my previous blog I talked about why I thought that a relativistic, “Who are you to judge?” culture was so dangerous.

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/respondblogs-who-are-we-to-judge/

I’m going to claim that human beings aren’t actually wired up to live this way anyway. And we can see that when we look at people and how we function as part of society. We might live in a culture that is becoming increasingly relativistic, but our intuitive reactions actually rail against the very relativism we are living within.

 

What do I mean?

 

Well – very often, I hear the claim from people that moral absolutes don’t exist. Rather, society itself just evolves …and our moral sensibilities evolve with it. Really? I would suggest that…while a nice theory…that this is patently false when we look at how human beings operate in the real world.

 

First – if it was true that human society decided human ethics, then we would intuitively know that no other society would be at liberty to criticise our society. We would know that…when it came to ethics…we could only act as passive observers of another society’s ethical system. Yet this is clearly not the case. Human history is stuffed full of commentary and judgement on past cultures and societies from ancient Rome to modern day Northern Korea and everything in between. We aren’t passive – we are quick to judge the choices people make, whatever their culture or society.

The hilarious irony here for me is that – usually when this comes up in discussion – the person proposing relativistic, societal ethics will often do so with an air of judgement on my own absolute moral position…thus underlining the brokenness of their own theory. I’m not saying I’ve got a perfect understanding of ethics and morality…but eyes, specks and planks spring to mind (if you get my meaning!)

 

Second – if it is society’s job to decide what is morally right and wrong, then our laws would be unassailable by definition. They would be right by default. Yet this is clearly not the case! There’s a very BIG difference between something being legal, and something being morally permissible. We see this played out in the abortion debate. Yes – it’s legal to terminate a pregnancy during the first 24 weeks in the UK[1]. But is it ethical? There are people on both sides of that debate.

And this issue gets thornier as technology evolves. Recently in the US, the Planned Parenthood organization has been faced with moral outrage over their harvesting of aborted foetal tissue; of going to market with valuable body parts gleaned from the aborted foetus. They are arguing that they are not operating outside the law. And they have a strong legal case.[2]  After all…this is a lucrative business for them. But surely the bigger question has got nothing to do with the legality of their business. The bigger question is this. Is their business morally permissible…or completely morally bankrupt and reprehensible? I know where I stand on that.

My point is – just because something is legal does NOT automatically make it moral. Ethics are not legislated for. Society’s laws are measured by a higher law. Human beings intuitively know this is how it works, and are quick to exercise their right as a moral human being to do so.

If it is right that an evolving society defines its own ethical system – then we have only one option in the face of Planned Parenthood. Or indeed any other atrocity that is committed within the bounds of the law. Our only option is – silence and acceptance. Is that what we see in society? Not at all! We don’t have to go far before we find someone with a moral opinion that they loudly express…I might not even have to go beyond myself. Moral reformers in society act out of a sense that there is a higher moral order that exists…a measuring line. And when we look at the moral reformers of the past, this gives us the third problem with the theory that says, “society defines an evolving morality.”

 

Third – this theory forces us to view moral reformers as the worst kind of immoral reprobate possible, because they are seeking to reform society and society defines what is moral and what isn’t. Consider Corrie Ten Boom who worked to reform Germany under the Nazi Party. She opposed her society’s moral system and, if moral relativism is true, she should be viewed as a highly immoral person. Yet history does not view her as a criminal. Quite the opposite – she is held up as someone who worked to make a positive difference in people’s lives. She rejected Nazi Germany’s ethnic cleansing laws because she was a human being. It had nothing to do with her German nationality.

Social reformers are heroes to us, not villains. And this shows up moral relativism as an incoherent theory.

 

 

Human beings are moral beings by definition; we exercise it. We do not like to keep quiet about it. Silence and acceptance is probably not the pattern in the comment section of a blog discussing moral relativism! And so – Society Says types of moral theories are incoherent.  We don’t sit back and accept every law as right. We don’t hold up moral reformers as evil; very often it is quite the opposite. Ethics is a measuring line that we intuitively appeal to when measuring human society. Therefore, the measuring line exists somewhere else…it is beyond society.

 

But maybe morality works differently. Maybe it’s not the claims of society that define what is moral, maybe it’s just what we do? Or maybe it goes even further. Maybe at the end of the day it all just comes down to personal preference. My conscience is the only thing guiding my own personal morality. Could that be how ethics actually works? More to come in part 3.

[1] “Abortion,” NHS choices, July 18, 2014, accessed July 10, 2015, http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Abortion/Pages/Introduction.aspx.

 

[2] https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/health-and-human-services-planned-parenthood-not-breaking-the-law.

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stuartgrayuk

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

3 thoughts on “RESPONDblogs: Does Society Decide What Is Moral?”

  1. In rebuttal I offer:
    “First – if it was true that human society decided human ethics, then we would intuitively know that no other society would be at liberty to criticise our society.”
    Why would we? Humanity often displays highly tribal behaviour over things they know to be largely arbitrary e.g. sports games.
    “Second – if it is society’s job to decide what is morally right and wrong, then our laws would be unassailable by definition.”
    There is a flawed assumption that society is uniform across an entire nation, cultural variance is huge across geographical areas of nations and across age groups within those. In this situation it would be natural to expect the law to only align with the moral views of some of society. Further compounding this issue is that moral views vary over time and the law can and does lag behind changes in moral thinking.
    “If it is right that an evolving society defines its own ethical system – then we have only one option in the face of Planned Parenthood. Or indeed any other atrocity that is committed within the bounds of the law.”
    Nonsense, even if the law was perfectly informed by the moral views of society, which it isn’t and given how those views vary can’t ever be, it wouldn’t be certain to be prefect. The law is a human creation and can easily be flawed or in need of an update following the development of new technologies such as viable organ harvesting.
    “Third – this theory forces us to view moral reformers as the worst kind of immoral reprobate possible, because they are seeking to reform society and society defines what is moral and what isn’t.”
    There is a little merit to this point, a person who stands in opposition to what is generally considered moral is by definition considered immoral by the majority. However:
    “Social reformers are heroes to us, not villains. And this shows up moral relativism as an incoherent theory.”
    You think the people that want to introduce racist laws are viewed as heroes? After all they are social reformers also?
    Overall the article seems to be based on the idea that if morality was derived from a person’s social environment then everyone would exhibit a uniform morality. This doesn’t make sense as society varies hugely across all kinds of demographics. I think the evidence is clear that a person’s moral stance is heavily influenced by their situation during childhood and affected by pressure from peers. If it wasn’t then it would be very difficult to explain why morality varies so much across nations and over time. The recent rise of acceptance of homosexuality is a good example. More historically gladiatorial combat was largely accepted by the population of ancient Rome yet would find few modern supporters.

    1. Hi Jon – thanks for taking the time to respond!!

      Yes. I can see an assumption here that…cultural variance is the same as moral relativism. And your responses flow out of that assumption.

      Yet I would suggest that we are much more nuanced than that. You’re not defining morality in the right way here.

      For example – Roman gladiatorial combat. I think u are saying that … because it is no longer practiced today that human morals have therefore changed. Interesting! Are you sure about that? One of the things that human beings do to justify certain behaviours…is to label other people as sub-human. Less than human. That allows us to justify to ourselves what we are doing to them. Why? Because we are moral beings and we have a core set of objective moral values imposed on us about protecting children, honouring our parents…respecting elders…and so on. Yet when we convince ourselves that they do not qualify for personhood…we are able to sidestep these moral obligations. The Romans did it to slaves in the arena…and probably the Christians too! The nazis did it to the Jews. You saw it between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. We do it today to the early, developing human foetus. In each case – the person is not a person. And so we are able to sidestep the moral obligation. Different cultures do this in different ways. What I’m saying is – I hear what you are saying – morals are cultural and therefore relative – but I don’t hear any good reason for taking that stance on morality as properly defined.

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