Monday, October 24, 2011

The Case for Moral Absolutes

The famous American philosopher John Dewey once said that "moral judgment and moral responsibility are the work wrought in us by the social environment . . . All morality is social" ("Morality Is Social," from Human Nature and Conduct). Nearly all secular philosophers would be more or less inclined to agree. And, indeed, for most people morality is basically social: it is the result of social conditioning. They are trained by their parents to behave a certain way, and as they grow older they become aware of certain demands imposed by society. But according to Dewey, this is all there is to morality. Morality is basically sociological.

But is this really all there is to it? Or is there something else – some eternal, unchanging standard of right and wrong that transcends the changing patterns of human culture? Dewey, and many other secular thinkers, would emphatically say "No"! But what they routinely overlook is the obvious, viz., God. If God exists, then doesn't His will count for something?

If God exists the whole secular philosophy of accepting life as it is, without making any value judgments, collapses. For if God exists, a Supreme Being Who is both infinite and personal, then everything He created has purpose and meaning, and everything that exists ought to conform to His will. Thus there is an "ought" as well as an "is."

And God obviously exists. We are surrounded by evidence of intelligent design. We live in a rationally ordered cosmos, and the rational structure of reality must ultimately have come from an intelligent being. We know through common sense and everyday experience the difference between intelligent design and random selection. If someone were to dump a boxful of bolts on a table they would land in no particular order – there is no discernable pattern. That is what is meant by "random." But if we count out the bolts in groups of ten, and then arrange the groups in ranks and files, that is intelligent design, and the design is readily evident. A human mind has obviously imposed order on the original chaos. The presence of rational order is the evidence of intelligent design.

Such rational order abounds in nature. Why does the human body have perfectly formed and functioning organs, connected in complex systems? Why is there so much symmetry in the body? How did we acquire intelligence? None of these things arise spontaneously from unformed and impersonal matter. Natural selection can explain how the unfit become extinct, but it cannot explain how the favored species came into existence. Nature is simply too complex to be the result of an impersonal biological process. The existence of a Creator is thus undeniable.

But how can we learn the content of morality? How can we know what the will of God is? The first part of the answer is that every human being is born with a conscience that gives him an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong. We instinctively recoil at atrocious crimes such as rape and murder. Soldiers are often traumatized when they are called upon to take human life in combat. Philosophers and psychologists have puzzled over this phenomenon. Dewey, as we have seen, tried to argue that it is purely the result of social conditioning. Others have maintained that it is a social instinct bred into the race. But the Bible says that even the pagans "show the work of the law written in their hearts" (Rom. 2:15 NKJV). The evidence is plain and simple: they accuse each other of wrongdoing and defend themselves in return. But why? It is because they have an innate sense of right and wrong.

Even the most skeptical philosophers themselves cannot entirely escape from this. If morality is essentially sociological and there is no transcendent standard of right and wrong, then how is it possible for anyone to pass judgment on an entire society? For it is society that determines the standard. If there was a social consensus in Nazi Germany that genocide was a desirable policy, then who is in a position to say that it was wrong? There is no room for individualism or non-conformity. Yet philosophers pass judgment on society all the time. Try as they might, even they cannot escape universal moral norms.

But conscience is not our only source of knowledge concerning morality. There is also direct revelation from God Himself. In Heb. 1:1,2 we are told, "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son . . ." In the distant past God communicated to men through inspired prophets – their writing are contained in the Old Testament (cf. II Tim. 3:16; I Pet. 1:10-12). The climax of divine revelation came, however, when God sent His own Son into the world. Jesus Christ was the prophet "par excellence," and His teachings, in particular the Sermon on the Mount, are the definitive statement of Christian morality.

Seen in this light morality is not a complicated philosophical problem; it is a simple matter of doing what God said. As human beings we are accountable to our Creator. In the end He will be our Judge. We do, in fact, live in a moral universe. Justice and human rights are grounded in God's eternal, immutable will. Any sane and rational person would not wish to have it any other way.


  1. Arguing for moral absolutes while teaching faith alone and OSAS is damnable stupidity. Either admit that morality matters, or give up barking about moral absolutes. If there are moral absolutes, then morality is the standard by which all will be judged and there is no magical escape via faith alone or predestination or bathing in blood.

  2. The Law of God is the standard, which means that if there is no justification by faith, there is no escape. Period. "The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one." (Ps. 14:2,3; Ps. 53:2,3). "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jer.17:9).