Nine Big Questions #2: ‘Aren’t Right and Wrong Just a Matter of Opinion?’
“There’s no such thing as an objective standard of right and wrong”, my friend said to me; “There really are no absolutes. If you think something is wrong, that’s fine for you, but I don’t have to measure up to your standard. We all have the right to choose the code of conduct we’re going to live by, and no one has the right to impose their code on anyone else. We all need to respect one another’s values and understand that in a pluralistic society we don’t all agree about these things”.
That’s a pretty common point of view these days, but when people say that’s what they believe, do they actually live by that philosophy? I would argue that many people are inconsistent here. They say that ‘right and wrong is just a matter of opinion’, and that everyone should respect other people’s choices in this. And in some areas – sexual morality, for instance – they live consistently with this belief. But not in all areas.
Let me give you an example. Tim Keller is a Presbyterian pastor in New York City, and I should say right now that I got a lot of help from his book The Reason for God when I was preparing this sermon. In one section of the book he tells of a young couple who came to him for spiritual direction; let’s call them Daniel and Sarah. Daniel and Sarah “didn’t believe in much of anything”, they said; how could they begin to figure out if there even was a God? Tim Keller asked them to tell him about something they felt was really, really wrong, and Sarah immediately spoke out against practices that marginalized women. Tim said he agreed with her fully since he was a Christian who believed God made all human beings, but he was curious why she thought it was wrong. She responded, “Women are human beings and human beings have rights. It is wrong to trample on someone’s rights”.
Tim asked her how she knew that. Puzzled, she replied, “Everyone knows it is wrong to violate the rights of someone”. He said, “Most people in the world don’t ‘know’ that, because they don’t have a Western view of human rights. Imagine if someone said to you ‘everyone knows that women are inferior’. You’d say, ‘that’s not an argument, it’s just an assertion’. And you’d be right. So let’s start again. If there is no God - as you believe - and everyone has just evolved by chance, why would it be wrong to trample on someone’s rights?” Daniel responded, “Yes, it is true that we are just bigger-brained animals, but I’d say that animals have rights too. You shouldn’t trample on their rights either”. Tim asked whether he held animals guilty for violating the rights of other animals if the stronger ones ate the weaker ones. “No, I couldn’t do that”. So he only held human beings guilty if they trampled on the weak? “Yes”. Why this double standard, Tim asked. Why did the couple insist that human beings had to be different from animals, so that they were not allowed to act as was natural for the rest of the animal world? Why did the couple keep insisting that humans had this great, unique individual dignity and worth? Why did they believe in human rights? “I don’t know”, Sarah said, “I guess they are just there, that’s all”.
I think Tim Keller is onto something important here. Even though, in our culture, it’s common to hear people say, “No one should impose their moral views on others”, still, on some subjects, that’s exactly what we do. All reasonable Canadians believe, for instance, that it’s wrong for people to hijack aircraft, fly them into tall buildings and murder thousands of innocent people in the process. All reasonable Canadians believe that it’s wrong to kidnap people and turn them into child soldiers or sex slaves. These are not subjects on which most of us would be willing to admit a valid difference of opinion. We believe that people who are doing these things should stop doing them, whatever their personal beliefs about the matter might be. We hold these things, for some reason, to be wrong in an objective sense – even in an absolute sense.
The truth is, of course, that all human beings have a moral sense – a conscience, we call it – that guides the decisions we make. Some people pay close attention to the voice of their conscience, while others have ignored it for so long that it’s almost grown a callus, like the calluses that we guitar players grow on our string fingers, deadening the sensitivity. But nonetheless, the conscience is there. Most of us believe, whatever we say, that there are some things that are objectively wrong – murder, rape, child abuse, for instance – and we have no hesitation in sitting in judgement on those things. But what, in the godless view of the world, gives us the right to make that judgement? Nothing, in fact – but still we do it. We don’t seem to be able to help ourselves. Many atheists are every bit as moral and ethical as religious people. But why is that, if there is no God to give us an objective standard of right and wrong?
Let’s take the example I’ve already quoted – the example of human rights. Nowadays there is great concern for human rights all around the world; everywhere we turn, we hear it asserted that every human being has an inherent dignity, and that individuals and societies should order their lives in accordance with that fact. But why should we believe that? Where does this dignity come from? It seems to me that there are three possibilities.
People who believe in God would say that human rights come from God. If the Bible is true and all human beings are created by God in God’s image, then every human being would indeed be sacred and inviolable. This is what the constitution of the United States means when it says that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, (and) that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’.
But of course, these truths are not self-evident to everyone; in fact, as Tim Keller would say, ‘that’s an assertion not an argument!’ Many people are agnostic or atheist and so would not appeal to God as the basis for human rights, and many who do believe in God are a bit doubtful about the idea of deriving our sense of right and wrong from God. Given the pluralism of our society, they would prefer to look elsewhere.
Alright, if we can’t appeal to God, perhaps human rights come from nature, a sort of ‘natural law’. Some people would argue that if we examine nature, and human nature, we’ll discover that some kinds of behaviour ‘fit in’ with the way things are, and are right.
However, there are problems with this point of view. After all, nature seems to thrive on violence and predation and the survival of the fittest – ‘nature is red in tooth and claw’, as the saying goes. There is no way to get the concept of the dignity of every human being from the way things work in nature. And it must be remembered that, in the past, some would have argued that the inferiority of women, and of people of non-white races, was an obvious fact of nature. So natural law turns out not to be a very good ground for morality and human rights.
Well then, some would say, maybe human rights are created by us – the people who write the laws. Societies get together and come to a consensus on what is right and what is wrong. That’s what politicians mean when they talk about so-called ‘Canadian values’; usually, respect for human rights is assumed to be one of those ‘Canadian values’.
But what if a majority in a community or a nation decides that it’s not in their interest to grant human rights? After all, this has happened – and I’m not just talking about the way that the Nazis tried to wipe out Jews and gypsies and homosexuals. Freedom to practice one’s religion is usually considered to be a human right, but what if the majority in a national community decides that it’s not in their interest to let women wear a niqab or a burka? If rights are just the creation of a majority in society, then there’s nothing to appeal to when they are legislated out of existence. And so, when the chips are down, rights that are created by majorities turn out to be practically useless. Human rights are only a useful concept if we can appeal to them to protect a vulnerable minority, and that can’t happen if we discover human rights on the basis of popular opinion poll.
So here’s the modern human dilemma. In theory, we say we believe that right and wrong are just a matter of opinion, and that everyone has the right to choose what they will believe and how they will live their life. In practice, though, we actually only apply that to a very restricted sphere – sexual behaviour, for instance, or abortion, or how rich you need to be before you’re considered greedy. In most of the major areas of life, we still believe that there is an absolute and objective moral standard that we have no hesitation in applying to ourselves and to others. People shouldn’t murder and rape and exploit one another. Women shouldn’t be treated as sexual objects or second-class citizens. It’s wrong, in an objective sense, to discriminate against people because of the colour of their skin. Most Canadians would agree with all this – and yet, although we believe these things are wrong, it’s pretty hard to figure out what we mean by ‘wrong’ in the absence of God.
Christianity, by contrast, has a firm basis for making moral and ethical decisions, grounded in the existence of God. We Christians believe that there is a creator God who has set the universe in motion and who has created us human beings for a certain way of life. He’s given us laws because he knows our nature through and through, and he knows what style of life is best for us in the long term. And so he’s revealed to us a moral law, which is a sort of road map to guide us through all the dangerous choices we could make and bring us safely to our destination.
We can find a witness to that moral law in our conscience. All humans have a moral compass, a conscience within us that points to the ‘true north’ of God’s will. Paul talks about this in his letter to the Romans. He says,
‘When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all’ (Romans 2:14-16).
So all humans have a conscience, and in fact if you examine the tenets of the different religions and philosophical systems around the world, you will find that there is a remarkable consensus about what constitutes a good and acceptable way of life. The agreement isn’t absolute, but it’s pretty close. I take this to mean, not (as some would say) that ‘all religions are basically the same’, but rather than God has created us all in his image, and that, even though sin has spoiled that image in us, it hasn’t taken it away.
Our conscience, however, isn’t 100% reliable. Earlier I used the illustration of a moral compass, but we all know that a magnetic compass doesn’t point to absolute north; the closer you get to the north pole, the more you have to correct it. And because we human beings are sinners, and have been brought up in sinful societies, sometimes our conscience has been twisted. So I need to educate my conscience, to correct it, according to the standards that God has revealed to us. We Christians believe that the writings of the prophets and apostles in the Old and New Testaments point to those standards, and that we see them in their highest and most accurate form in the life and teaching of Jesus who is the Word of God made flesh.
So no, right and wrong aren’t just a matter of opinion, and in fact people instinctively know that; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be so quick to sit in judgement on corrupt politicians! No – God in his love has given us instructions about how to live in accordance with the way we were created, and we find that instruction in Jesus and in the scriptures that point to him.
However, let me just close with one word of warning. Claiming that God has given us an absolute standard of right and wrong is not the same as claiming that we have an absolutely infallible understanding of it. History is full of examples of how our understanding has developed over the years. Slavery, and the status of women, are two examples of how our understanding of God’s revelation to us in the scriptures and in Jesus has changed over the centuries. No doubt there are other issues today that we need to have conversations about. Each one of us needs always to remember that ‘I can be wrong’! So we need to continue to come together around the scriptures and the teaching and example of Jesus and talk things through. Jesus assures us in the Bible that the Holy Spirit will guide us into the truth, but he makes this promise to us as a community, not as individuals. Individually, my capacity to deceive myself is almost infinite; the community helps keep me honest.
Nonetheless, we are not stumbling in the dark. Psalm 119 says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (v.105). We Christians believe that we find God’s Word supremely in Jesus, who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). As we follow him together, we discover the way of life that is his will for us, and we also discover the strength of his Holy Spirit helping us put it into practice.