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Foundational Issues (3) – Ethics: Is There Such a Thing as Right and Wrong?

Every society, every organization, every nation, every family has rules governing human behavior and expectations on how people should act. We have grand rules that safeguard human life and dignity (e.g. do not murder) and mundane rules governing things like which hours you can make a right turn in certain intersections.

There have been two fundamental understandings of ethics (note: I use the terms “ethics” and “morals” interchangeably). The first is that they are Natural, that they are somehow embedded into the nature of reality and therefore have continuity between different times and places. Most people that believe this have held that God or the gods either made up these rules or that we people are made in such a way that these rules fit us.

The other understanding of ethics is that they are conventional, that they are man-made. Humans make up rules like “no parking on this side of the road when it snows more than 2 inches” and they also make up rules like “do not steal.” Those that believe morality is conventional hold that both types of rules are made by people and can therefore be changed by people.

Those that believe that morality is man-made fall into a number of different camps and I won’t try to discuss them all. Instead I’ll focus on just three ideas: that ethics are evolutionary, that ethics are created and imposed by the strong, and that ethics grow out of our instincts. 

The idea that ethics is evolutionary is argued by characters in Plato and thereby precedes Charles Darwin by millennia. The argument goes something like this. Death stinks. Everyone realizes this and no one wants to die. So people make an agreement: I promise not to kill you if you promise not to kill me. Groups that make these types of promises and that find further ways to cooperate are more likely to survive and outcompete other groups. This is the origin of ethics: things are neither right nor wrong in and of themselves, but rather we call things good and right that “work”, things which help the species to survive.   

A second notion of ethics is that they are imposed by the strong. If chaos comes, who has more to lose: the rich or the poor? The rich of course. And they have the power to make rules, so they make rules that protect their status and their power and keep others down. According to this view, there is nothing inherently wrong, ethical ideas simply reflect the preferences of the elite and when those elites are overthrown and replaced a new ethical system arises. This was a fundamental conviction of Karl Marx, but there are lots of different, milder versions of this in other thinkers. Moreover, anyone who played games as a child with an older brother has probably experienced some version of this, some version of the rules changing for the benefit of the strongest one.

Lastly, people often believe that ethics are nothing more than the outworking of our instincts. All animals have instincts, humans are animals, therefore humans have instincts. Instead of flying south for winter we instinctively “know” that certain things are right and wrong. This might sound like what Christians mean when they talk about conscience, but it is different. For a Christian the conscience is something put within the hearts of men by God, whereas instinct is something natural and the product of random forces. (There is an obviously tie with the evolutionary view—i.e. that instincts that help with survival are passed on.)

While there may be some true insights in these views, for examples some rules may be made that benefit those in power, Christians have traditionally rejected the idea that ethics are conventional. Instead, Christians have believed that ethics are in some sense Natural, that they are a part of reality, unchanging and eternal, that things are objectively right and wrong for all peoples at all times.

This begs the question, in what way are they Natural?

Some Christians have said that things are right and wrong simply because God says so, but things could have been otherwise. They say that God decided to create this particular world with its particular set of rules (e.g. gravity), but things could have been different had God so willed it.

Other Christians say that the Natural Law is a reflection of God’s character. What is good and right is not something that God wills because it is not something external to Him, rather it is a reflection of His being. Because His being is unchanging, what is right and wrong is unchanging, and because God is who He is, it could not be otherwise.

Despite their differences, both of these groups of Christians agree that morality is not something we make up, instead it is something given to us by God. As such we are called not to reinvent God’s rules, but rather to obey them.

Next week I will write about how we know ethical truths.