When you open Twitter these days…it doesn’t take long till you notice someone who is full of moral outrage about something or other. They are often indignant at words someone has spoken, actions taken/not taken, or simply the state of the world. But – hang on. Isn’t it interesting that we can do this? Express moral outrage to each other in this way? If you think about it, we can do it because there is a moral standard that people all share. We might disagree what the right or wrong thing is in some situations…but we DO agree that a moral standard exists which imposes a big “ought” on all of us all the time. Things ought not to be like they are…that person ought not to have done what they did.
C S Lewis said it this way. The natural law of gravity tells you what stones do when you drop them. The moral law tells you what humans ought to do…but they don’t because they often do the wrong thing. In nature, you just have facts. In human nature, you have facts, and you also have how we OUGHT to have behaved but didn’t. And if you’ve ever shouted at someone and wished you hadn’t, cut someone up in the car or been dishonest in some way…you know exactly what I mean.
If you think about it…that’s weird. Particularly if there is no God, and humanity is simply an accident of nature, biologically evolved from the primordial soup that swilled around when planet Earth was new.
I’ve pointed out the strangeness of this moral “ought” to people and commented on how unusual it is. And I tend to get two basic responses from people:
1 – Society has evolved moral standards. But, they change from time to time. It’s just what an evolving society does.
Usually the person will point to an example. Perhaps, how society is changing in its attitudes to homosexuality. This is true. They are right that cultural mores do grow and change. But cultural mores and the moral law are not the same thing. Cultural mores describe how humans behave…but they are not moral standards that we often will struggle to live up to.
What are moral standards? Certain things have always been right and wrong at every time and every culture. For example:
- It’s always morally wrong to torture little children for fun. Ancient societies that practiced child sacrifice have always been abhorrent and people who abuse little children always criminals. Child abuse is OBJECTIVELY wrong. We absolutely OUGHT not to do it.
- It’s always morally right to respect your elders. Now, some societies have very different ideas about what “respecting elders” looks like. But – we always OUGHT to do it in a way our culture accepts as correct.
But are these standards just how society has evolved?
I’m sure society does evolve in its understanding. But that says nothing about where our moral standards COME FROM. It just concedes that over time, our understanding of moral standards is evolving and improving.
Other people responded differently when I pointed to the moral “ought” that presses in on each of us.
2 – Yes. There are objective moral standards. But – these standards come from human beings.
Now – if you think about it, this idea is strange.
They are saying some behaviours are objectively wrong. But – humanity has set those objective moral standards itself. Because we are moral beings, we decide what is right and wrong. But – hang on – the question is – “why are we moral?” We can’t answer this question by saying, “Because we are moral.” This is a logical fallacy called, “begging the question,” or circular reasoning.
Here’s are some problems with this idea.
First – if moral obligations and duties come from society, then why is it that every society agrees on THE SAME objective moral standards (two examples above)? What are the chances of that?
Second – If people give me a set of standards to live up to, why should I care about your moral standards if I have my own? Just because you have an opinion about what I ought to do…why should your opinion influence me? You cannot describe a behaviour as objectively wrong – unless we can both point to an EXTERNAL moral standard which comes from an external source outside of ourselves. If people set this moral standard themselves, then these are subjective “ought’s”…what someone or some group of people think I should do. Why should I care? This is just someone’s personal taste … like which side of the road should we drive on, for example.
Third – behaving immorally has real weight attached to it. The point is that the moral law is different. These laws are objective, they press in on all people in every time and place. And – when we behave immorally – this has real weight attached to it. It’s not just breaking the speeding limit…immoral behaviours are sometimes referred to as “being evil.”
Fourth – If the moral law comes from humanity, why didn’t we make this standard easier to follow? If we recognise a personal struggle in behaving morally, then we have also experienced the other-worldly source to moral obligations.
Someone might respond, if I claim an external source for this moral standard, does this lessen humanity? Does it make people out to be less? Well – why would it? I’m just pointing to a difference between SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE standards of human behaviour. Subjective rules do not morally bind on all people everywhere. Objective moral standards do. Also – this is a moral standard that people aren’t very good at living up to! So that suggests it comes from somewhere or someone else.
So where does this moral standard come from?
I think I’ve observed that deep down…people just know that some things are always wrong…evil…objectively so. Child abuse is a good example of this. So the question remains – why is that?
The only way I think we can make sense of this state of affairs is for there to be a greater being who is of consistently good character, who embeds morality in the people he makes. He defines what is objectively right and wrong, and he imposes this standard on each person. The greatness of this being…results in the weight that lands on us when we behave in an immoral way.
This greater being must be:
- external to humanity, and so can set a good, objective standard on us.
- not subject to changing human cultural tastes and mores because we are different from him.
- powerful enough to create the universe and the people within it.
- someone we are personally accountable to for our moral behaviour.
This greater being sounds a lot like Christianity’s idea of a good and loving God.
 C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: William Collins, 1952), 17.