How Do We Know Right and Wrong?

How Do We Know Right and Wrong?

Every generation and every society requires that we adapt morality to fit the times – don’t you think? Well, that is the way that the large majority of people in the world operate. It is interesting that most evangelical Christians would tend to disagree with that statement in a generic sense, but then turn right around and live life as if it were true. We have a way of carving out exceptions for ourselves.

Stealing is wrong, unless we are a bit tight on our budget this month and need to steal a little bit from God to get by. Hatred is wrong, unless it is toward that person who is creating havoc in our lives at work. Cheating is wrong, unless it gets us that promotion to a place where we can help stop all of the cheating going on by others. Lying is wrong, unless it is just a small harmless lie. Living with someone outside of marriage is wrong, unless we really love the person we are with and plan one day to get married. Unless, unless, unless – the word we use to carve out exceptions for ourselves regarding morality.

Relativistic morality is such a prominent part of modern society that most people, even Christians, take it for granted that things must be that way. But Biblical teachings do not allow for relativism in morality. There is such a thing as right and wrong and Christians are admonished by God to do what is right.

One of the big problems we face in understanding this matter relates to how we understand morality in relation to God. Most people think of morality as a set of rules about what we can and cannot do. But God’s moral requirements are not a list of rules. When communicating about morality we cannot help but express them as “do’s and don’ts, but that is a knock on the nature of language, not on the nature of morality. We cannot help but express it that way.

But morality is not a list of rules. It is, rather, a description of the character of God. Things are right because they match up with his character. Things are wrong because they do not match up.

So, for a Christian, we do things or don’t do things because we want to conform ourselves to the image of Christ, not because there is a rule. I want to be like Christ so I don’t cheat, lie, steal and so on.

But to fully understand the concept of morality, we need to look at the four worldviews and see what all of the possibilities are regarding how we determine moral acceptability.

What are the possibilities for discerning right and wrong?

Each of the four worldviews has a primary foundation in one of four different possibilities for determining what is morally right. Each of them may have one or more secondary foundations, as well, but these are only used as a means for backing up the primary. The four possibilities are human reason, tradition, human experience, and revelation. For the sake of broad stroke understanding, human reason, tradition and human experience are all based on a relativistic understanding while revelation is based on a foundation of absolutes.

Naturalism

Naturalism is the belief that there is no such thing as a supernatural reality. As such, there is no God or other transcendent being in existence who can pass information to people in the material world. Since no information is available from a transcendent source, we have to get everything from our material world.

When it comes to morality, the only possible source is human reason. Human beings must discern for themselves what is right and wrong and build society based on their judgement.  Basically, individuals, or groups, evaluate the societal situation and decide what they think is best. It is typically based on either personal desire or the desire to promote the survival of our species. When situations arise where people disagree regarding moral regulations, the one with the greatest power (whether physical or persuasive power) wins.

Animism

Animism is the belief system which asserts that ultimate reality is composed of both a physical and a spiritual reality which interact in a symbiotic relationship. What goes on in the physical world affects the spiritual world and vice versa.

Morality, in human existence, is determined by discerning what pleases the beings in the spiritual world. When a human does something that creates a disturbance in the spirit world, the spirits get upset and cause bad things to happen to the one(s) causing the disturbance. If things start going badly for particular humans, it is assumed that they have done something wrong (immoral) and they must correct the problem by appeasing the gods. Over the generations, the things which please the gods (things that are moral) are learned and passed on. Thus, morality is learned based on tradition (history).

Far Eastern Thought

Far Eastern Thought is based on the belief that ultimate reality is an expression of an impersonal life force. Material reality is seen to be a spin-off of this ultimate reality and is far enough away that the impersonal life force is not able to be clearly discerned. As such, the material/personal world we live in is not a true expression of reality. What seems to be real (the material and personal) is actually a distortion of what is actually real (the immaterial and impersonal).

The parts of the life force which have been spun off of the main body are believed to be working their way back. This is done as pieces of the life force successively reincarnate to higher and higher life forms until they are finally able to escape the material world and rejoin the main body.

In Far Eastern Thought, morality is expressed in the karmic system. As each expression of the life force on earth lives its life rightly, it accumulates good karma. If it lives wrongly, it accumulates bad karma. Good karma propels the life force forward toward unity with the main body while bad karma inhibits progress. As human beings discern the causes of good karma, they are able to do the things which will help them advance. There is an element of tradition built into this system as information is passed on from generation to generation. But the main way of discerning morality is human experience. As humans experience life, they are supposedly able to discern the effects of the impersonal life force and live in such a way as to accumulate good karma.

Theism

Theism is the belief system which maintains that there is a transcendent God who has created the universe to operate a certain way. Morality is an expression of that creation. God has determined what is right and wrong and has passed that information on to mankind by means of a revelation. What God has revealed to be right is good and what he has revealed to be wrong is bad.

What is the Right Way to Understand Morality?

The subjectivity of Naturalism, Animism and Far Eastern Thought make it very difficult to take any one of them seriously as a means of determining morality. There is no way to arbitrate between conflicting reasoning and experiences, and no way to objectively validate various traditions. Reality does exist in some objective form, thus some objective basis for understanding morality based on that form must be found. This only leaves some Theistic belief system as the most reasonable way to get at morality.

There is a problem, though. There are many forms of Theism which are all clamoring to be seen as the truth. Of course, our Christian faith asserts that the form of Theism which expresses the truth about reality is taught in the Bible. (It is outside the scope of this article to give an apologetic concerning the truth of the Christian claim, but there is very powerful evidence to back it up, and there are numerous resources on the MarketFaith Ministries website which deal with this – www.marketfaith.org/resources).

As Christians, we understand that the God of the Bible is a real person and has revealed himself to us. In the Biblical understanding, morality is not simply the articulation of moral/legal codes that God has decreed, but is a revelation of his own character. Something is right because it corresponds with the character of God and is wrong because it doesn’t correspond. When we understand morality this way, it is our desire to imitate the character of God that drives our moral sense rather than attempt to follow a set of rules.

© 2009 Freddy Davis