The Problem of Morality: How Do We Reconcile So Many Definitions of Right and Wrong?

The Problem of Morality is a question that I have been wrestling with most of 2014 and through extensive reading, seeking, and my own life experiences this year I have put together this blog as a culmination of my thoughts and position on this very important and critical question.   I will start the blog with an excerpt from a book, Deliver us From Evil, authored by Ravi Zacharias.  In the introduction Ravi gives an overview of Oscar Wilde’s book, The Picture of Dorian Gray.  This is a great description and example to frame the question at hand.

If there is an image that mirrors the West today, it is strikingly reflected in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  This familiar story describes an exceptionally handsome young man so physically captivating that he drew the persistent and awestricken adulation of a great artist.  The artist talked him into being the subject of a portrait, saying he had never seen a face more attractive and pure.  When the painting was completed and presented to the young Dorian he became so fixated and enraptured by his own looks that he wistfully expressed the longing to draw license from such beauty and to live any way he pleased, unfettered by any restraint.  Any ensuring disfigurement from a dissolute life he hoped would mar only the picture, leaving him unblemished.

Like Faust of old, Dorian received his wish.  His life of sensuality, indulgence, and even murder left his physical appearance completely untainted.  Spurred on by the success of his undiscovered duplicity, he plummeted ever further into the depths of wickedness. One day, alone and pensive, he uncovered the portrait he had kept hidden for all those years, only to be numbed by the hideousness of the face, which bore the horror and scars of a life scandalously lived.

Besieged by the fear of being found out and of the incrimination’s the portrait would reveal, he buried it among the goods he kept stowed in his attic.  But the pathetic charade came to an end one day when the artist himself laid eyes on it.  Overcome with grief because of what he knew it meant, he confronted Dorian and implored him to turn this wasteful life around and seek God’s forgiveness. “Does it not say somewhere,” he pled, “Come now let use reason together.  Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.  Though they be red like crimson, they shall be white as wool?”  In a fit of rage Dorian Gray grabbed a knife and killed the artist, silencing the voice.

The story reaches an emotional climax when, no longer able to stand the indictment of the picture, Dorian reached for a knife once more to destroy the portrait and remove the only visible reminder of his wicked life.  The moment he thrust the blade into the canvas the portrait returned to its pristine beauty, and Dorian Gray himself lay stabbed to death on the floor.  The ravages that marred the picture now so disfigured his own countenance that he was unrecognizable to the servants who heard the scream of death and came rushing in to help.

The power of this book lies in its most central idea: Can an individual or a society live with complete disregard for a moral and spiritual center and not suffer from the wounds of wickedness?  Can the soul of people who have lived without restraint be left unravaged? Is there a point at which one must cry a halt to the passions and the whims of unbridled appetite and admit that enough is enough?

I’m not “Spiritual”, I just practice being a good person.  As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed I noticed this statement pop up in my feed and it immediately got me thinking.  I decided to investigate and went to the respective Facebook page and website to learn more.  What I was trying to understand is how you define the practice of being a good person with no underlying truth or anchor in which to measure?  By whose standards or by what purpose do you back this claim?  I see and hear this statement often and it typically causes me to dig deeper and inquire from the individual or group promoting this idea.

My thoughts always go to sports when this statement is presented to me.  I imagine an international sporting event like the Olympics or World Cup where every country or team practiced what they thought the best rules should be but when the teams come together to compete there is not an agreed upon rule book among all countries and teams.  On game day I imagine complete chaos similar to when I played pick-up football games in my neighborhood where no rules were established, they often ended in wrestling matches or fist fights!  You would have one team calling a penalty under their rules while the other team claiming that it is fair play by their rules, there would be no precedent for who was playing fairly and who was not.

Defining the Essence of Morality

I would like to propose a simple question to start framing the basis for the question at hand.  Is there right and wrong in the world?  If your answer is “no” to this question then there is no reason to continue reading this blog.  If you respond with “yes” then lets move forward with a standard definition of Morality to frame the discussion.

Morality (definition one): Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.

This is the common definition you will find for morality but it only leads to more questions – what defines right and wrong or is there right and wrong? When an individual or group states that they want to be a good person this typically means that they are acknowledging that there is evil or wrong in the world!  This is a good starting point in which to start diving deeper into the Problem of Morality.  I believe most people would acknowledge that there is great suffering and wrong doing in the world but based on where you are in the world that definition differs greatly.  How Americans with a Western worldview define morality is completely different than how those in Asia do with an Eastern worldview.  It gets even more complex when you go beyond the geographies and look to groups of people and get down to the individual.  So ultimately if we want to truly define the practice of being a good person then we must start with how to define what is right and what is wrong.

Lets dive deeper into the definition of Morality for a moment.  In order for something to be right or wrong then there must be a basis for purpose and value to the underlying object or person at hand.  For example, lets say the purpose of a pair of scissors is for cutting cloth, paper, or other thin material.  When scissors are used to injure another innocent person then this would be a misuse of intended purpose.  The innocent person being injured has value and worth towards oneself and  to others in the persons life so the injury is a violation of that individuals value and freedom.  The underlying worth and value is what sets the foundation for right and wrong and the misuse of purpose is what ultimately violates that value and worth which I believe to be the basis for Morality.  Below is second definition that brings a more objective structure to Morality.

Morality (definition two): Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.  Right and wrong are established through a respectful observance or negligent violation of ones value and worth.

Now that we have two definitions to work from the next component for framing this problem is to explore whether there is truly a way to pin value and purpose to humanity.  Without value and purpose there can be no violation nor an ultimate right or wrong.

Exploring The Value & Purpose of Humanity

I believe the starting point in addressing the value and worth of humanity is based on how an individual or society views origin of the universe and humanity.  Specifically, was the universe created through intelligent design or through unintelligent design and natural selection.  Intelligent Design is the theory that the universe and humanity was created and guided through intelligent cause.  Unintelligent Design being the opposite that the universe and humanity were created through random cause and natural selection.  I am not here to argue this point or convince anyone on what to believe but to know where you land on this individually is crucial in defining right and wrong.

Under an overly simplified theory of unintelligent design the universe is here through random occurrence of matter and energy that eventually lead to humanity through natural selection.  Under this basis the thought of morality and right and wrong can only be tied to the benefit of survival.  Anything outside of that would not align with the idea of natural selection and that particular worldview cannot have an ultimate anchor for right and wrong given the random occurrence of unintelligent design.  Under this worldview if someone has to kill another for food this cannot be right or wrong, it is what is necessary for survival.  You may like or dislike the event that occurred but you cannot say that it is inherently right or wrong since the only measure of this is survival.

Of course someone can believe in unintelligent design and still believe in right and wrong but it is not a coherent worldview and that is what I am after in exploring the Problem of Morality.  The basis for logic is in the law of non-contradiction so in order to truly reason and understand the Problem of Morality there must be coherency.

Intelligent Design being the idea that creation and humanity came from a creator or intelligent cause.  This means that there was thought and purpose behind our universe and humanity.  This idea can be better understood by the argument of complexity, the idea that simple and less complex things coming from things that are more complex.  For example, every acorn drops from a fully developed tree, every child comes from two fully developed parents, and the modern train came from the complexities of the human mind and not an evolution of less sophisticated transportation.  This is an argument that something complex like humanity has to come from something that was mature and more complex.

For the purpose of this discussion, lets put aside the unintelligent design segment as a worldview that ultimately adheres to survival and not a standard of right and wrong.  We will circle back to this later in the discussion.  This leaves those with a worldview that do believe in an intelligent cause that creates a truth and basis for morality but who and what defines that truth becomes the next problem to answer.  If there is an ultimate mortal truth and anchor then who or what is the basis for that truth, given the myriad of philosophical and religious beliefs this becomes a very complex question to answer.

Looking at Who and What Defines Morality

This leads to our next series of questions. What defines a good person? How do you measure this and by whose standards?  When two people disagree on what is right and what is wrong then whose truth overrides?  We all ultimately follow some type of value system and worldview that allows for each of us to make decisions on a daily basis.  In some instances that is purely a position of relativism that is based on the individual dictating right and wrong in the moment with no thought of a value system only what is best for the individual in that moment or mood.  Thus, in the case of relativism there can be no ultimate anchor for right and wrong or better stated it is up to the individual to decide and change at their will whenever convenient.  There are philosophical worldviews like Buddhism that is based on detachment and mastering the individual ego as the basis for enlightenment as the ultimate answer to the Problem of Morality.  Religious beliefs like Islam want submission without question above all, it is comply with what we believe or face destruction.   The Buddhist wants to detach and turn away from the broader problem of morality, The Islamist wants to define morality and force you to comply, and the naturalist does not believe that there is morality so there is no need to do anything about this problem.

The above are just a few worldviews and values systems and in no way exhaustive, the point I am making is that we all ultimately have a choice in how we make decisions in our life and those choices fall into some type of worldview or value system we believe.   With that said, the broad diversity of worldviews and viewpoints on this problem leads to even more questions of who is ultimately right.  C.S. Lewis framed this problem of ethics through the analogy of ships at sea through three very important questions.

  1. How to keep the ship from sinking – personal ethics.
  2. How to keep from bumping into other ships – social ethics.
  3. Why is the ship out in the high sea’s to begin with – the essence of ethics.

With great complexity of humanity and value systems how do we coherently and consistently deal with C.S. Lewis’s three questions?  How do we handle one another when we are so far a part on what we believe is a crucial question to humanity.  This is the question that has kept me up at nights and created great struggle for me in some of my partnerships and relationships.  How do we reconcile and live with one another when we measure right and wrong differently?

Handling The Problem of Morality in a World That is not Aligned on What Defines Right and Wrong?

This is the part of the discussion where I will outline where I have landed through hours of research and thinking.  Although I am confident in much of my findings I still struggle with the Problem of Morality daily and how it effects my life and relationships.  I am by no way stating that I my answer is the only answer or the perfect answer, it is just where my truth is today.

I come at this problem from a Christian worldview and believe that we are here due to intelligent design and that there is an ultimate truth that defines what is right and wrong.  For me, this is where I go to answer the complexities of this question.  The Christian worldview hangs on two distinct commandments that Christ outlined during his ministry.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is where the absolute is established in the Christian worldview that drives ultimate worth in humanity.   These two commandments which all the laws and prophets hang on establish our relationship with our creator and all humanity.  Ravis Zacharias states that the creation narrative gives humans intrinsic worth and essential value.  You see, there cannot be worth among humanity based on natural selection or relativism but only when we recognize and establish that the neighbor next door has the same worth as you do.  Furthermore, the belief that a creator cared enough to create the world and humanity illustrates an inherent worth that cannot be established from a materialist worldview.  The Christian worldview is the antitheses of naturalism and establishes ultimate worth which is why there is a basis for right and wrong.  It also calls the individual to recognize and acknowledge something greater than oneself and to recognize the value of our neighbor on equal terms as the self.  This is where I depart from the Buddhist who focuses solely on self and individual ego.  If we have value and worth then that value and worth can be violated (i.e. violence, evil) which is where right and wrong is established.

With that said, I also believe that we are given freedom to chose for ourselves whether we follow that truth or not.  I whole heartedly believe that individual freedom and liberty to pursue what one believes to be truth is crucial and in alignment with the Christian worldview. I will let any individual know where right and wrong stand with me but I refuse to force that individual to accept that as truth or force my morality onto them.  This level off freedom is not afforded in religious beliefs like Islam and where I ultimately where I depart from the Islamist.

The essence of love your neighbor as yourself is capturing the respect of individual freedom and liberty that I believe everyone has been afforded.  As C.S. Lewis so perfectly stated, loving your neighbor is wishing his good, not feeling feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.  This statement from C.S. Lewis establishes the basis for respect for one another’s freedom and liberty, it does not mean that we have to like our neighbor or agree with them but we must wish them well by respecting their freedom and liberty. 

Where Do We Draw The Line

Now for the hard part, where is that line drawn? When do we say that an individual or institution is infringing on freedom and liberty and something must be done. Who gets to make that call and why?  Ultimately trying to define what a good person is across continents, cultures, and worldviews is impossible. It is why I view love your neighbor as yourself as the ultimate ethic, it is why I believe the life of Jesus Christ was a perfect example of how to live a life in a world that is in ethical and moral conflict.  He spoke what he believed was truth but did not force it upon anyone and ultimately died for speaking that truth! This is setting the precedent for freedom and liberty, allowing individuals to pursue their truth without infringing on one another’s freedom. For me, once freedom is violated then this becomes where the line is drawn.  Christ dealt with that violation through sacrificing his life, his adversaries sent him to death to silence his truth and in killing Christ they did just the opposite and the story of Christ has now reached every corner of the world.  It is about stating our truth and being willing to die for that truth but at the same moment not violating or forcing that truth on others.  It is in freedom and sacrifice that we as humans finally respect one another and start to respect the idea of morality.

Much of the philosophical and sociological premise of our current Western culture is based on the Christian worldview and not the materialism vision of man.  Unalienable rights, human equality, and morality is something that cannot be explained by the the materialist view nor any other religion that is based on works.  To dismiss the Christian Worldview in many ways is dismissing much of the principles that allow for our freedom.

Much of the Atheist and materialist worldview supports the eradication of religion and philosophy in society and culture.  This has been the common goal of most Atheistic regimes, especially true in the terrible 20th century.   Many that adhere to the Atheist worldview state that eradicating religion would make the world a safer and more peaceful place.  Unfortunately the historical facts do not back up that claim.  Below is an excerpt Dr. James Kennedy’s book “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born.”

Now lets add up the numbers, Mao killed about 72 million human beings from 1948 to 1976.  When we add the 40 million Stalin is responsible for, we come to a number of 112 million.  Throw in Hitler’s 15 million (not counting the devastating war he started), and we come to about 127 million.  Add other killings by other Atheistic and totalitarian states, as a result of their aesthetic ideology, you come up with a number of more than 130 million. Using the most exaggerated criteria and numbers, one could come up with no more than 17 million people killed by professing Christians “in the name of Christ” in twenty centuries of Christian history. So when compared with the top estimate of 17 million allegedly killed in the name of Christ, we see a huge difference with the estimated 130 million killed by Atheists.  Thus, the number of those killed in the name of the secular state in this century (20th) alone is about eight times more than our estimate of the number of those killed in the name of Christ in all centuries of the Christian era.

Lets take this one step further and allow for the famous economist Fredrich von Hayek to outline the issue with a pure materialist perspective.  In his book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, economist Friedrich von Hayek launches a similar attack on the socialists and their “omniscient state.”  Hayek demonstrated the impotence of the socialist to run an economy

Man is just matter: This materialist vision of man is the first and most profound error of the socialist revolution. The materialist vision of man is what justifies the communists’ insistence that they may legitimately do whatever it takes to achieve their utopia. We must be transformed by the state, into its image and likeness.

This materialist view disregards therefore the true dignity of man and the true nature of the human person—his rationality and free will. The artificial social orders engineered by socialists are completely devoid of a proper understanding of man and the kind of being that he is.

Now let us look to our founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Don’t Tread on Me, I am not asking you to adhere to my values and beliefs but I am also asking you to not infringe on mine and I will not infringe on yours.  I believe that the Problem of Morality is only solved on the basis of freedom and liberty to pursue truth without infringement or coercion of that individual freedom.  Once freedom is infringed upon then there has been a violation of value and ultimately this is where right and wrong is established.  In history, we have seen that same violation under regimes like Hitler, Stalin and Mao which resulted in unprecedented genocide.  We have seen the opposite with unprecedented freedom and liberty in countries founded on JudeoChristian values and freedom.

Conclusion on The Problem of Morality 

In closing, I would like to state that I believe the reason we are dealing with a morality crisis and such high levels of violence and mental health issues in an affluent and free society is due to the incoherence of worldviews in our society.  The behaviors and emotions that are coming out of individuals are the symptoms of a deeper rooted virus which I truly believe to be a devoid of purpose due to an incoherent worldview.  Individuals souls are in conflict due to the mind and hearts inability to make coherent and consistent choices based on a well defined and outlined value system.  Therefore, the members of our society are like a leaf in a storm being uncontrollably whipped around by a culture with no purpose as hostages of postmodern relativism which takes them deeper and deeper into peril and meaninglessness.  This eventually leads to radical behavior which will ultimately end in violation of individual freedom and liberty. This is where the Problem of Morality starts and ends.

“When we see our hearts as God sees them, we find His strength, not only to understand good and evil, but to act on it. The one who resists this truth has nowhere to turn.” Ravi Zacharias