Thursday, March 20, 2008

Subjective and Arbitrary Morality

Liberals and Conservatives. Opposites right? Well not necessarily when it comes to morality. Oh but I’m sure on this point your saying: “What do you mean they're not opposite on morality. Liberals say you can do whatever you want and conservatives tell you that you have to play by the rules, following the law to the letter. How can you be any more opposite than that?! I answer that conservatives and liberals both believe that morality is subjective and arbitrary.

Let me explain.

Liberals believe that morality is subjective to the person making the choice. Right and wrong are determined by the actor. If one believes it is okay to eat a fattening cookie than it must be okay. If one believes adultery is okay, than it must be moral to commit adultery. However, if one later believes that adultery is wrong, then it becomes immoral – but in both cases only for the person making the choice, and they should never impose their morality on someone else. This subjective attitude towards morality makes morality quite arbitrary. Actions become moral or immoral based upon how one feels when he acts. Imagine if traffic laws worked this way! There’d be social chaos (and I’ll blog more on this chaos later)!

Conservatives also believe morality is subjective. But not to the one making the choice. Morality is subjective to God. He is the Law Giver Who makes morality. But this, carried to an extreme, makes morality arbitrary. If God makes laws, then he can change them whenever he feels like. Many Baptists and Christian fundamentalists (as well as Islamic fundamentalists) believe just this. One example they use is God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. A Lutheran philosopher and theologian called this a “teleological suspension of the ethical” – that God made murder permissible. This “divine command theory” makes morality subjective to God and quite arbitrary. Without going into details, God was showing Abraham that this new religion would be one without the human sacrifices which were common in other pre-modern religions.

Over two thousand years before Protestantism, the father of philosophy, Socrates, met what you could call a pagan “fundamentalist” who believed this point as well. This man was on his way to court to have his father found guilty of accidental murder because he saw the gods do something similar in a myth. Socrates asked him a question: do the gods will something because it is good or is what they will good because they will it? Are the gods subject to goodness and thus bound to command what is good or are can they make up whatever they want and call it good because they are the powerful gods? Socrates’ belief undermined polytheistic belief by saying that goodness is above the gods and therefore we needn’t look to the gods for goodness but look to goodness itself in order to do what is right and just.

Catholics take up where Socrates left off and say that God’s nature is goodness; that although all Socrates knew were the immoral gods, we know the one God who is goodness itself. Not impersonal goodness but goodness as a divine attribute. Those who make morality purely subjective and arbitrary do injury to God and to the nature of man.

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