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2. Considering Truth: Glimpsing the Moral Law … and God behind it

When I was a student as I described in The Wisdom I learned from a Filthy-Rich, Hard-Drinking Playboy I read C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity.  It intrigued me because in a brilliant way he took examples from everyday life showing how our sense of fairness and right and wrong were deeply embedded in us.  He presented a lucid argument for a Moral Law – implying Reality was more than simply matter/energy materialism since this Law was non-material, and that there was a LawGiver standing behind this Law.

Though I felt, and accepted to some extent, the force of the reasons he presented, I struggled because the ‘data’ that he used was soft and intangible (after all it was ‘just’ human behaviour).  It was not concrete and absolute like more scientific data seemed to be.  I also knew that his arguments for a Moral Law stood in contrast to the academic spirit of our age.

But I re-read his book and as I entered into more life experience I just held his view tentatively out there asking if it made sense of my human situation and the situations of those around me.  And I kept finding that his view on right and wrong seemed to fit so well with what I saw around me.   It gave a shrewdly accurate assessment of human morals.  As I studied philosophy of ethics and world religions at university the Moral Law further established itself in my mind.  The data became less intangible to me than it had been at first.

These two videos summarize some of my journey looking at this fascinating question.  I argue that moral truth is absolute, not subjective.  You may find, as I first did, that this is a very different way of looking at moral truth than what you are accustomed to.  If so, I would simply urge you to, like I did, keep this view tentatively ‘out there’ in your mind and observe how you and those around you reason morally in real-life situations.  You may find it, in time, shrewdly fitting what you see.

In this first video I look at leading thinkers of ethics.  In particular I look at Bertrand Russell in his book Why I am Not a Christian.  Without intending or meaning to (they are trying to argue the opposite), both he and the other academics I cite convinced me that there was indeed a Moral Law.

In the second I then survey the data of human ethics in world religions to see if there is evidence of a uniform Moral Law.  Then I ask the very practical question if I am living up to the Law as advanced by any religion.

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9 thoughts on “2. Considering Truth: Glimpsing the Moral Law … and God behind it”

  1. I don’t agree that Dobzhansky and the other two’s choice of words means much — to my mind it seems that they simply wrote in such a way as to communicate their meaning in the easiest way possible.

    As for Russell, he probably takes offence because his reputation is damaged by the “slander” of those religious people. I guess I can’t really speak for him, but if it were me, I would be outraged not because they had trespassed against an absolute moral law, but because they had done harm to me. It just so happens that in so doing they violated some societally accepted tenets, which gives me the weapon I need to fight back (verbally).

    1. I guess I used the Dobzhansky et al quotes to raise our curiosity and to get us to look at the question. But to my mind, Russell betrays his position. To get a sense of what is meant by being morally right or wrong, or morally better or worse, in a subjective framework, consider this analogy. When we say ‘up’ or ‘down’, or ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ we are implicitly using an absolute standard – a standard that is outside of us and which we measure ourselves against. The standard of course is height from earth’s surface measured in the earth’s gravity field. The distance from the earth’s surface is the standard by which we say something is ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than another thing, or that a certain object went ‘up’ or ‘down’. Now imagine a person in deep space, far away from any planet or star – where he feels no gravity and there is no surface. What is ‘up’ for him? What does ‘higher’ mean? He may choose to designate ‘up’ or ‘higher’ to be based on his long body axis as he floats through space. But if he floats along and meets another person who happens to be in a reverse position from him, his ‘up’ would be the others ‘down’. In that situation it would be apparent that terms like ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ would really be relative or subjective to the person. These terms would only have meaning based on randomness of how they happen to individually rotate and float through space.
      When Russell uses moral reasoning to say ‘The mayor is wrong to be dishonest’, ‘The newspaper should have courage in fighting for truth’, ‘The department was corrupt’ he is comparing actions against an absolute standard that transcends his and (more importantly) their personal preferences – like a ‘moral’ planet that their actions should align with to give an ‘up’. Only then do statements of moral ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have any meaning. But moral relativists are saying that moral statements are really ‘in space’ with no standard to compare them against except ourselves or conventions of society – i.e. how most of us ‘floating in space’ seem to line up. But that does not fit with how morality works in us; ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ operate within us in an absolute sense, from a standard that is outside of ourselves. Russell may deny it, but his moral protests prove otherwise.
      My experiences just considering a subjective vs. objective view of morality are for sure a filter in my mind. I was a live-in superintendent at university residences for several years, responsible for discipline and order with a hundred or so university students. I was also a sessional university instructor. In both of these contexts I noticed that most students, when we talked about ethics and morality from a detached point-of-view of their philosophy of morals, insisted that there was no real or objective right and wrong. There was no absolute sense of fairness or right conduct. In their minds it all reduced down to social conditioning and personal preference. They were free to make up their own standard of fairness and decent behaviour. In this thinking they were expressing the academic spirit of our age. But, if they felt that they were unfairly treated in some way (by me in my position) they were quick to complain ‘That’s not fair’, and call on an absolute sense of fairness to bear on their grievances. It seems to be very difficult (impossible?) for a person to consistently live out a philosophy of ethical relativism or subjective morals when wronged. Russell, to my mind, is doing the same.
      I guess this is getting long so I will end it here. But thanks for the comments

      1. About Russell…a standard doesn’t have to be absolute to be a standard that transcends oneself. One’s standard can easily be the law of one’s country, or more commonly, the general feelings of one’s society.

        We can revisit your own initial example as an illustration. We say ‘up’ and ‘down’ without explicitly referring to the Earth’s surface, although the Earth’s surface is indeed the standard against which we are implicitly measuring. But then go into space, and suddenly up and down are (more obviously) subjective. And yet, ‘up’ and ‘down’ still have meaning — not absolutely, perhaps, but they are still words that help us to communicate (in this case, to convey ideas about direction).

        In other words, while there is no absolute ‘up’ or ‘down,’ we can still say ‘up’ and ‘down.’ You’re right, their everyday usage needs a standard outside of ourselves — but that standard is the Earth, not some abstract code that specifies ‘up’ and ‘down.’ In the same way, ethics do not need a heavenly lawgiver to specify ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ just a standard outside of the individual.

        1. I would not disagree with you here. Just because there is a standard outside oneself does not necessarily mean there is a Divine Lawgiver. And I was not trying to say that. The standard could possibly be societal, though then why standards are so congruent across societies remain a puzzle. And, intuitively, the moral law has a different hold on a person than societal laws. The film A Separation shows this I think, as well as my latest post on the Tao. Perhaps I feel this in a stronger way having lived and traveled so much in different societies. Morals in my experience are best summed up in Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative (which I want to look at later). But the Categorical Imperative is certainly not based in society. It transcends it. Dawkins has a possible solution which I also want to look at in a later post. Plato’s Forms would be another possible source for a Standard, more Absolute. But a Lawgiver fits readily with the notion of Moral Law. I would only suggest you keep the option open as we explore these options.

  2. I think I’ve talked to you before about my thoughts on the consistencies between the ethics of different cultures. There are some very general ethical principles that are common, yes. But I believe this is so because societies could not function without them, almost like a sort of societal natural selection.

    You might then look for societies that have died out due to everyone murdering each other. I don’t know if there are any, but I would also argue that the theory doesn’t need them. Because societies are made up of individuals, who are constantly making decisions and have the ability to change behaviours, societal evolution doesn’t need to happen across generations like organismal evolution. So, ethics can be established at the very start of a society’s life, as a bunch of people come together and quickly realize that they can each secure greater security for themselves by establishing rules that apply to all of them — even though the social contract might cost them some freedoms. Then it’s just a matter of conveying these rules to the children, and voila! You have your ethical system.

    And then of course we have ethical values that differ from culture to culture, such as the status of women and what they are or are not allowed to do. Or how about sex selection? Polygamy? Racism? Societies can function with OR without these, which is why different cultures have different stances on such issues.

    1. Your points are well taken. It was largely for the reasons you mention that for a long time I held an objective view rather tenuously. So I certainly understand where you are coming from. Your account for development of ethics is certainly plausible. Dawkins in God Delusion argues along the line you do for the development of ethics. I will look at his reasoning more in-depth in a later post and perhaps we can discuss this further then.
      As for you points about differing values. I am not saying that every person (or group of people) always get their moral reasoning ‘right’. Just like we can incorrectly reason logically and arrive at wrong conclusions (or add incorrectly and get the wrong sum), we can incorrectly exercise our values. Also, similarly to how we can have physical flaws from birth or injury (like astigmatism or hearing loss), or emotional breakdown from stress or abuse, some of us have damaged values that do not function properly. The notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer would be such an example . And similar to how physical abnormalities can spread among small population groups, moral defects can also spread in isolated groups. Head-hunting cannibal tribes in remote jungles would be an example of a group with a defective value. Our reaction in us when we hear of the ‘morals’ of head-hunting cannibal tribes tells us something about morality because when we hear of those morals we think of them not only as different, but different and also ‘wrong’. When we hear of jungles tribes wearing grass skirts, or hunting small rodents for food we may think that is different from us, and not to our preference, but we would not perceive it as ‘wrong’. Diet and clothing are not innately of moral consequence (though religion can impose this on them). But when we hear of a group of people who think it is normal practice to eat other people, we think that there is something ‘wrong’ (as well as different) with them. They have, for some reason, a defective Morality.

      1. Correct me if I’ve misunderstood, but I think you are saying that when a practice is morally wrong, we perceive it as ‘wrong,’ whereas when a practice is different from what is familiar to us yet morally neutral, we perceive it as simply ‘different’ or at worst ‘not to our preference.’

        Let me ask you: who is this ‘we’? Perhaps I feel that not head-hunting is morally wrong because it means I am treating my slain enemy with less respect that he deserves. And, as you hinted with your aside on religion, there are others who would indeed take moral issue with clothing — it is not ‘right’ for a woman to bare her torso, for example, because it incites lust.

        If I had a lower opinion of your ability to reason I might go on to ask “So is it simply the majority that determine what is morally right and wrong, then?” because that seems to be the implication. But I know that’s not what you mean.

        At the same time, though, if you can point to the cross-cultural similarities in ethical frameworks and say, “This is evidence for absolute morality,” then I can point to the cross-cultural differences and say, “This is evidence against absolute morality.” Your statement about defective morality is premised on the assumption that morality is absolute, which makes it a circular argument.

  3. Speaking of moral absolutes, I presume that you would call “Thou shalt not kill” an example of such an absolute. This is one of the famous Ten Commandments of the God of the Bible. Of course, you can quibble about what exactly God meant by the word kill in this seemingly rather straightforward commandment about killing — which kinds of killing God is okay with and which kinds he isn’t. After all, soon after Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from the Mount Sanai, God ordered him to kill about three thousand of his Hebrew brethren — and not just them, as I recall, but also their families and even their neighbors! Now how exactly does that jibe with Moral Law?

    1. Hi Ray. Thanks for your comment. You are mistaken in that “Thou shalt not Kill” is really “You Must not murder” Society (so this is nothing to do with the Bible) differentiates between murder and killing. A soldier in war kills but does not murder. A policeman may require to kill someone but that is not murder.

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