Monday, July 27, 2009

Black and White

Can right and wrong any longer be seen as black and white or only as various shades of gray? Before we can answer this we need to get certain rabbit trails out of the way. To say that ethics are absolute does not mean all ethical decisions are easy. To say that the multiplication tables are absolute does not mean that all mathematical problems are easy. However if 2 x 2 = 4 sometimes and =5 other times and =3 other times, then no mathematical problem can be solved. Another red herring is to believe that if morality is black and white, then human nature and human institutions are always black or white. The Christian position is that all human beings individually or collectively are sinners (Romans 3:23, Jeremiah 17:9, Isaiah 64:6), and therefore are commonly various shades of gray. This just means that virtue must be measured by something higher than us.

But a more serious objection is that people in different cultures have differing standards of right and wrong. But is truth determined by whether everyone can agree on it. Scientists disagree on whether dinosaurs were cold-blooded or warm-blooded. But that does not mean there is no right answer to this question. If most of the people in this country once generally believed it was appropriate for individuals of other races to ride in the back of buses, did that make it right?
Also this picture of differing standards is not entirely true. Yes, there are variations in moral codes. But not so much that there is not a general consensus on the basic principles (see C. S. Lewis' book, "The Abolition of Man") . What we have looks like a deposit, entrusted to us in ancient times, which various cultures have distorted to meet their philosophies and circumstances.

But it is interesting that people, no matter how hard they protest against the constraints of traditional ethics, will then turn around and defend very loudly their own ethical principles. They may have not any objection to eliminating unborn humans but will deplore loudly the fate of endangered species. They will mock chastity and the sanctity of marriage but will constantly vilify those who oppress the poor.

Now do not get me wrong; unlike with relative truth it is possible to attain to relative morals. We call such people sociopaths and tend to lock them away to protect ourselves from them. But before we adopt this as our standard we might want to ask ourselves this question: if morals are only a delusion, why is it so hard for us to rid ourselves of them. And if there is something in them, perhaps we should start our search for what the real standard is by looking at the deposit that has been handed down to us.

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