Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tension: Do Good and Avoid Evil!

The first law of moral conduct is to do good and avoid evil. 1 Peter 3:10-12 offers this blessing:
[ 10For, "Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. 11He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. 12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil." ]

Of course such a scriptural admonition is not enough for a good many people who don't believe in morality in the first place. "You can't tell me what to do" is a phrase I hear often enough, although I think it very immature. C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man calls the universal moral law the Tao. He goes on to cite examples drawn from all the major cultures of the world.

Nevertheless it is quite fashionable nowadays to claim that morality is simply a cultural construction. Such a view flies in the face of experience. We all know in most cases instinctively what right and wrong. We know that taking things that don't belong to us is stealing (we might do it anyway, especially if we think we can get away with it or are more influential or more powerful than our victim), we know it is wrong to inflict arbitrary pain on others, and we know the golden rule is true. In fact it shows up in many ways in many cultures. So we do know right from wrong.

There are obviously complicated cases where the decision is difficult and not so obvious as those I've mentioned. But the existence of hard cases doesn't show that we don't know right from wrong or that the distinction is arbitrary. There are lots of difficult mathematics problems that are not obvious but when you understand them have only a single answer. Ethical problems that are complex can also be of this kind.

Relativism tends to stop when the relativist confronts a personal wrong. I recall a story about a student listening to a philosophy professor expounding on how all morality was relative with a parable about listening to the professor and going out and keying his car. He speculated about what the professor would do and suggested that he would be outraged and call the police and demand that they arrest the student. The point was that he would not acknowledge the claim the student would have that keying the professor's car was OK because he wanted to, or he thought one should key philosophy professor's cars. So the professor's relativism was just so much theoretical hot air.

Good and evil have to be objective realities or we have no sound basis for judgments about behavior. The horrors of the 20th century, of which there have been many, would just become so many localized culturally relative behaviors. The Nuremberg Trials would just be the victory of power and not a statement of moral outrage and application of justice.

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