Finding Moral Truth

In previous posts I presented four features of the truth. Now I want to consider a fifth feature: moral truth. Any time we make a moral pronouncement we are saying things ought to be in a certain way. This inescapable sense of “ought-ness” that every person has points to such a thing as moral reality. Once person makes a statement about reality they are making a truth claim. The question is if moral truth claims do indeed correspond to reality.

Ravi Zacharias points out any time the problem of evil for instance is raised, it is either about a person or by a person. Morality only makes sense if there are personal, volitional creatures. Stones, tress and animals do not debate the issues of right and wrong. When we say something ought to be we are saying somethings are more preferable than others. We are making a value judgement. Now human cultures differ across the world but each one of them has some kind of a moral value system, even though we may differ what that framework should look like. The universal drive for moral standards among different societies tells us morality is more than a consensus position. It also keeps it from completely drowning in a storm of personal preference and relativity.

In today’s world there is a lot of talk about rights and freedoms, things which we think are “self-evident.” It’s been over 60 years since the United Nations was formed, and we are still struggling to achieve these things. This shows not all people see the evidence. In the American Declaration of Independence it says,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain with unalienable rights.”

This sort of language only proceeds from the Judaeo-Christian worldview. In The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark shows the ancient world in which Christianity was birthed had very different morals to modern society. It was the pioneering example of the Church fearlessly taking care of the poor and the sick, even to their own disadvantage, which prompted social welfare as the responsibility of the state. That sort of idea was unheard of in the ancient world. I guess as we moved further away from the historical epicentre of Christian origins, it has been harder for us to notice how much moral ground has shifted beneath our feet.

Some people claim all religions seek obvious universal moral truths but even from this short review one can tell it really is not the case. It is evident that ethical systems often greatly differ from one culture to another or even within a society, as we observe in the United States. It is generally accepted we all have moral concerns. Yet we have to identify which of them are non-negotiable or the conversation about morals quickly turns into indistinct babble. This however is easier said than done.

One moral point of reference that all human societies adhere to is the truth itself. Truthfulness is a virtue no matter where you go. No one likes being lied to. It isn’t just that we get peeved that we realised someone tried to pull a fast one on us. It is because reality is what it is. We call a spade a spade because no matter what we want, even if the whole world agrees, it will never be a rake. We need the truth to live meaningfully in the world therefore it is a fundamental ethic. In short it is good to live according to the truth.

Now if the truth is a sturdy point of moral reference we can talk about concrete moral imperatives. There are moral realities we should live by. So why is it that it is an indisputable fact of the human condition that people do not live morally consistent lives? We all do things that we should not. Of course depending on your worldview you will answer that question differently.

People the world over recognize evil and sinful desires exist in the world. As a Christian, I contend the biblical worldview brings the problem of evil and suffering in the world into sharp relief, the most raw and stark picture you will find. Evil and  suffering indicates to us things ought not to be the way they are. Even though it is, we know it should not be. The truth is not simply the harsh reality of evil. The story goes like this: There is amazing good in the world yet there is also heinous evil, but that should not be the case. If evil is not what ought to be then something should be done to make things right. This notion is justice and it is another moral reference point that hinges on the truth.

When justice is at work it does essentially three things. It punishes evil, reaffirms the good by rewarding it, and restores things to the way they ought to be. Now if justice does only these things and does not move to another significant moral point of reference we might end up with unmitigated vengeance. In the name of justice we will always seek to retaliate and just end up hurting ourselves. History offers us harrowing examples of opposing peoples being decimated, fighting over something for so long that they no longer really know what they are fighting for. The final moral reference point I will talk about is forgiveness.

Now the move to forgiveness is often very difficult, especially when you or a loved one is wronged, or we are horrified by the sheer heinousness of the crime. Yet we must remember that we too have wronged others. It is when you recognize that you are an offender as well, and not only the victim, that the deep longing for forgiveness tugs relentlessly at our hearts. At this stage you can see I am at home in the territory of the Christian worldview. You can only firmly make the case for mercy, instead of being swept away by justice, if humans are good. By good I do not mean humans do the right things or even want to do them, which we all know is clearly not the case. They are good in the sense they have intrinsic value and therefore they “ought to” be saved. Of course this begs the question who or what gives them value, and if they do who has the ability to save them and would they do it?

At this juncture I must draw things to a close. I have sought to demonstrate truth is itself a moral value and an anchor for talking about other moral imperatives like justice and even forgiveness. What has really surprised me in this process is the strength and importance of the moral argument. (It has given me a healthy appreciation for why C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity preferred the moral argument over other options.) Truth and morality are the twin pillars of life that hold up meaning, we cannot have one without the other.

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