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The Foundations of Morality

Filling in the gap in The Character Gap

Published on:
June 19, 2018
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4 min.
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When discussing my book, The Character Gap, there is one question that comes up over and over again. It is the question of the foundations of morality. As Rebecca McLaughlin wrote in her review for The Gospel Coalition:

. . . the book does little to highlight the need for an underlying philosophical foundation for morality. Take the instance of a suicide bomber. We may evaluate his or her actions as a vicious attempt to cause harm to others. But according to his or her own moral code, this might be a great act of courage and self-sacrifice.

She is right. I should have said more. Let me do so here with this bonus track.

Moral Atrocities

“This is just absolutely pure evil,” said Florida governor Rick Scott in response to the murder of seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. Most of us would agree.

Parkland joins a list of cities including Sutherland Springs, New York City, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas, where mass shootings have recently taken place. They were all evil.

When we say this, we affirm that moral right and wrong, good and bad are not just a matter of personal opinion. After all, Nikolas Cruz likely believed that he was justified when he opened fire at the school in Parkland. But he was simply mistaken.

Similarly, we are grateful for the courageous women who exposed to the world the awful behavior of Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, and company. What these men did was morally condemnable, period.

Some actions are just wrong, bad, vile—and that is the end of the story. It is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact.

When we lament the sexual assaults and massacres, we demonstrate the bankruptcy of the position philosophers call “moral relativism.” Some actions are just wrong, bad, vile—and that is the end of the story. It is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact. 

Moral relativists see things differently. They hold that what is right or wrong, good or bad, is decided solely by your personal opinion or your culture’s opinion. There is no further authority, no deeper truth to morality beyond what we happen to think.

Imagine what this outlook implies about the neo-Nazis who demonstrated in Charlottesville last August. They thought that Jews are less than fully human. Few of us agree. All human beings have equal moral worth and dignity. But moral relativists hold that these different moral beliefs are equally valid—who’s to say which one is really correct?

That is incredibly hard to accept. It can be downright harmful too.

Psychological Research on Moral Relativism

In fact, several recent studies have demonstrated this experimentally. In one study, Tage Rai at Northwestern and Keith Holyoak at UCLA found that being exposed to relativist arguments increased participants’ likelihood of cheating. They also found that willingness to commit petty theft was lower for participants who were given a more objective definition of morality as opposed to a more relativist one.

These days the language of an objective morality—one which is not dependent on our idiosyncratic opinions but rather exists independently of them—is everywhere.

These are examples of people getting in trouble with moral rules. While not focused on harming other people, an influential study by Liane Young and A. J. Durwin at Boston College looked at donation rates to those in need. In one experiment, they found that priming people on the streets of Boston with a moral relativist or moral objectivist outlook made a big difference to their subsequent donating—those folks who got the objectivist prime donated twice as frequently as those who were primed with relativism.

Thankfully today most of us, no matter our political leanings, have left moral relativism behind. When House Speaker Paul Ryan famously said in 2011, “If you ask me what the biggest problem in America is, I’m not going to tell you debt, deficits, statistics, economics—I’ll tell you it’s moral relativism,” his words might have applied to an earlier decade. But not to the present. 

These days the language of an objective morality—one which is not dependent on our idiosyncratic opinions but rather exists independently of them—is everywhere. Whether we realize it or not, it animates discussions of immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, freedom of speech debates on college campuses, advocacy for disability rights, and on down the line.

Moving on from Moral Relativism

Given the implausibility of relativism and how we seem at least implicitly committed to a higher morality, it is time to move on and face some of the most fundamental questions there are about morality. In particular, if we human beings aren’t the ones who decided that school shootings or sexual assaults are wrong, who or what did? Where does this objective morality come from? 

We aren’t going to settle this debate here.

One option is to say that a supernatural being like God laid down a moral code that we are all meant to follow. The code could affirm the intrinsic dignity of all human beings, for instance. This basis for morality is obviously widely held among religious believers, notably followers of Western religions like Judaism and Christianity.

Another option, especially for those who are not religiously inclined, is to say that there just is an objective morality. Full stop. Nothing created it and there is nothing that we human beings can do to change it. Like the laws of physics, the laws of morality are what they are, and we just have to accept them. 

We aren’t going to settle this debate here. But let me make two quick points.

First, if you don’t believe in a divine being, and moreover one who is capable of laying down a code of moral right and wrong, then the choice between these two options is obvious. The second one wins, essentially by default.

But suppose you do believe in such a higher power. Then that does not automatically shift the advantage to the first option. For it could still be the case that there is an objective morality which governs we human beings . . . and God too. God wouldn’t be the one making murder wrong, for instance, but merely telling us that it is.

Nevertheless, if the God of the Western theistic religions is in the picture, then my own personal view is that the religious believer should opt for the first picture. Doesn’t it seem very strange that there would be principles of morality governing lying and keeping promises and stealing, which just exist on their own as features of reality? They were never created and indeed have been in existence eternally before any human beings came on the scene. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this idea.

For the purposes of my book, though, one could hold either approach to thinking about the foundations of an objective morality. Developing a good character is tremendously important, I believe, whether morality is grounded in God or not.

Christian B. Miller
Christian B. Miller is A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. His writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, Aeon, Christianity Today, and Slate, and he is the author or editor of eight books. His most recent, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? has just been released with Oxford University Press.

Cover image by Farnoosh Abdollahi.

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