RESPONDblogs: How Cultural Differences Point TO Absolute Morality – Not Away From It

culture

I think there are many strong arguments that point to the existence of the God who is presented to us by the Bible. And one of those arguments is – the human moral code.

 

I suggest that human morality points to God. And human morality is all about how people SHOULD behave.

 

Yet one of the common responses I get – is that morality is not about how people should behave. Morality is just how people DO behave. And that has changed over time. Further, just look at people in the world today. Moral values are clearly different between (for example) the members of the ISIS terror organization, and the average British person who looks on in horror at what they are doing to innocent people.

 

Each people group appears to have its own set of moral laws. These laws guide each people group as they seek to satisfy their wants and desires. And most compelling of all – each group thinks they are right! One group feels morally justified in its terror tactics – another group disagrees. In the face of this – to claim that a single, absolute moral code exists seems unlikely at best!

 

My response to this is – really? Are you sure about that? Perhaps you share this opinion that – morals are just what society does. Ok – let’s look at this claim closely.

 

FIRST – the person who says that morality is just what society does – is making a self-refuting claim. It is a claim that cancels itself out. Why?

They are saying that everyone is basically imprisoned in their own culture – we all have cultural biases – we all think we are right. We cannot see beyond our cultural biases. So it is just meaningless to claim that an objective moral standard exists.

Why does this claim cancel itself out? Well – because the person who makes this claim must have escaped his own culture, he must have somehow arrived at an objective perspective himself to have discovered that fact. So they can look down objectively on all the different cultures around them, who are locked in to their own way of doing morality. They see clearly, while the rest of us mere mortals are slaves to our individual societies.

So why is this a self-refuting claim? On the one hand – you are saying that no objective morals exist. And to prove it – you are making an objectively moral claim and expecting to make it stick. This is contradictory – you are denying the very thing to make your argument work.

It’s a bit like the story about the elephant surrounded by a bunch of blind men. You’ve heard this one, right? One can feel the trunk, another the ears, still others the legs. And they each think an elephant looks like the single bit that they can feel. And so they each have a very different idea of what an elephant looks like. But to truly understand what an elephant looks like, it takes a guy above them in a balcony – who is not blind and can see the elephant – to shout out, “The elephant is a big animal. Each man touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.”[1]

In order to assert that culture and morality are the same thing – you need to be the guy in the balcony looking down on the elephant. Yet that’s the very position that you deny – God’s absolute moral position.

 

SECOND – just because cultures disagree on moral viewpoints doesn’t mean there are no objective morals. It just means some societies differ on some moral viewpoints!

Just because societies disagree on what is morally acceptable does not lead us to the inescapable conclusion that there is no objective morality. Not at all!

“Currently there are conflicting views on many things…Is there life after death, or do we perish with our bodies? Does the disappearance of equatorial rain forests pose a threat to civilisation? Is the protective ozone layer that covers the earth being destroyed? Opinions on each of these issues vary. The fact that there is disagreement, however, does not mean that no view can be correct. The same is true with differences of opinion on morality.”[2]

Anthropology allows us to conclude that different people have different views about right and wrong. It does not let us conclude that there is no objective morality.

 

 

 

THIRD – differences in cultural moral practice POINT TO objective morality. These difference do not point away from objective morality.

This seems an odd thing to say – so let me explain what I mean. What might look like moral differences – often turn out to simply be a difference in perception of the circumstances, not a conflict in the core underlying values. There can be a difference in the facts…but the values stay the same.

  • A fact is – a fetus has developed for 16 weeks and has toes, fingers, a nose, eyes and a mouth.
  • A value is – a fetus is a human being.

Facts answer the question – what IS the case? Values answer the question – what OUGHT to be the case.

Killing human beings for no reason is and has been wrong in every culture at every time in history. It is an absolute moral value. What changes – is the justification for the killing. The abortion debate does not turn out to be a conflict about facts at all – rather, it’s a conflict on values.

Pro-life people think abortion wrong in 99.9% of the time because it involves taking the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.

Those favouring abortion agree completely that human beings – particularly the mother involved here – is a valuable human person! They disagree though on whether or not the unborn child qualifies to be seen as a human person.

But this debate points to a single, absolute human moral requirement – human beings are always of value and must be respected at all times. On both sides of the debate, we share a point of morality.

Here’s another example. In India cows roam free because they are considered sacred. Yet people in Britain eat beef burgers. This would seem to show a conflicting moral value between our cultures on the treatment of cattle.  Yet BOTH our cultures would agree that it is wrong to kill and eat human beings. So what has that to do with anything?

“In (Britain) when Grandma dies, we don’t eat her, we bury her. In India, Hindus don’t eat cattle because they believe the cow MAY BE grandma reincarnated in another form.”[3]

In other words – we share the absolute moral value of each human life. We just express that moral value differently.

There are many different examples of this. Recently someone pointed me to the ancient Roman Coliseum and said, “Morals have evolved since the barbaric Roman times. We don’t have a Coliseum any more. We don’t watch slaves being torn apart by wild animals and soldiers”. And my response is precisely this point. No – we don’t. But we kill our unborn children on an industrial scale. Is that any more or less barbaric? The Romans justified the killing of slaves as sport…by dehumanising them. They wouldn’t have treated Roman citizens that way – proper human beings. They would only treat sub humans to the horrors of the Coliseum. The Romans agreed with us that human life is precious. They shared this absolute human moral requirement. Yet they justified the killing by lowering their assessment of the value of their victims to subhuman levels. We do the same with the unborn child.

 

And ISIS? Well – I wouldn’t claim to understand their motivations. But I will say this. Their killing is not indiscriminate. You don’t see ISIS members randomly killing each other. They value friendship and human relationship and common purpose. Just like us. They are particular about who they murder. What you see is ISIS killing specific Christians and Muslims…and anyone else who they devalue to such an extent – that immediate death is our only option.

 

 

 

Is there evidence of absolute morality amidst the confusing mess of different cultures and peoples? Yes I think so. When you look beneath the surface – it is there at the centre. We all just cover it over with a different cultural coat of paint. It’s a common code of conduction that presses in on us…and that sounds very much like a pointer to God himself.

 

The God who cares about you and me so much…that he wants us to live a safe and productive life together. So he coded it into each one of us…

 

[1] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism Feet Planted in Mid-Air, (BakerBooks, 2011), 45.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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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.

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