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Measuring Morality
  • Ethical Sources
  • The Natural Ethic (Nature)
  • The Consensus Ethic (Majority Rule)
  • The Arbitrary Ethic (Power)
  • The True Absolute Ethic (Transcendence)

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Measuring Morality

What is Right and Wrong?

Ray Cotton


One can say that every ethical value involves some standard of behavior, and every standard is defined in a prescriptive manner. Ethical standards are expressed in terms of "ought" and "should," or "ought not" and "should not." They transcend the language of description, speaking not only of "what is," but rather "what should be."

Where do we find such standards? What kinds of sources are available to us upon which to build an ethical system? The options are as follows:

  1. The Natural Ethic (Nature)

    All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
    All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
    All discord, harmony not understood;
    All partial evil, universal good;
    And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
    One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.
    Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
    (emphasis added)

    1. Definition: "Oughts" are derived from what "is."

      1. Mortimer Adler called this an attempt "to get conclusions in the imperative mood from premises entirely in the indicative mood." This view presupposes the origination of value is found in the facts, the observation of nature.

      2. "What is ethically right is related in some way to what is materially true" (G. G. Simpson, emphasis added).

        A man runs a red light. He cannot draw a conclusion of whether or not to run the red light without having an earlier presupposition or standard in place concerning that ethical choice: "One shouldn't run red lights."

    2. Example: Behaviorism--All of our actions are the result of either our genetic make-up (see Human Nature: Who Are We? in this notebook) or our environment. This system presupposes that nothing exists beyond the material realm (see World Views: What is True? in this notebook). What is called mind is reduced to physical and chemical reactions. We cannot act upon the world; rather, the world acts upon us.

    3. Critique: There can be no human responsibility for actions. Behaviorists themselves appeal to a standard of justice when wronged. Contrary to the contention of the behaviorists, there are both philosophical reasons and scientific evidence to support the belief that we do possess an immaterial substance.

      To have true moral values, people must get them from somewhere other than the actual world of description. This view destroys the very concepts of good and evil, because "what is" contains both. To speak of good and evil becomes non-sensical. Charles Manson said, "If God is one, what is bad?" Baudelaire lamented, "If God exists, he is the Devil." This view does not answer the question of predatorial/survival life in nature. All that we call "human" would be destroyed if people practiced this natural ethic consistently and universally. Not many hold this view seriously. T. H. Huxley admitted that, although evolution is true, it leads to bad ethics. Even evolutionists choose not to live in such a world. Instead, they philosophically smuggle Christian ethics arbitrarily into their system and hold it romantically upon their naturalistic base.

  2. The Consensus Ethic (Majority Rule)

    1. Definition: Whatever a cultural group approves of is deemed right; whatever the group disapproves of is wrong. In America, we find the most popular expression of cultural relativism demonstrated in the opinion poll.

    2. Example: Utilitarianism--This moral theory seeks to maximize, by your actions, the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The emphasis is on the group, not the individual.

    3. Critique: Bentham and Mill could not agree on whether to evaluate on a quantitative or qualitative basis. The questions we need to ask are: What is good? or Good for whom? Justice, does it matter? Is it as or more important than the good of the group?

    4. The implications of this moral theory are revealing:

      1. The grand result of the Kinsey Report on American sexual ethics in the 1950s was that people bought the idea that if a majority of citizens accepted something as right or wrong, it was.

      2. Cultural relativism claims to be based on a scientific view of morals. Admittedly, statistical analysis of human behavior is the true and proper task of sociologists. But within the discipline, unfortunately, there is, by design, or by inference, a strong tendency to make value judgments about the results of their research. Sociology exists only to tell us what people are doing, not what they should be doing. True values must be found somewhere else.

      3. Ethics by majority may actually have little to do with morality. A society can become corrupt. In New Guinea, for example, the tribe of Papuans have a 100% majority in their view on the virtue of cannibalism. Does their unanimous consent on this issue make it moral? By such reasoning, if 51% of the German people assented to the extermination of Jewry by Hitler and his henchmen, then their actions were "right," and other cultures should have withheld any criticism of German sovereignty in their own internal affairs.

      4. Cultural relativism is really "status-quoism," providing no strong motive for social change. It is also capricious over time. For example, in 1859, slavery in the United States was socially acceptable and abortion was illegal. Today, the reverse is true.

      5. Those who prefer this ethical foundation must face one very dangerous fact: If there is no standard by which society can be judged and held accountable, then society becomes the judge. When that happens, no one is safe--minorities, the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, and perhaps even the blond-headed or the left handed!

  3. The Arbitrary Ethic (Power)

    A teenager complains to her mother, "Why can't I go out tonight?" Mom replies, "Because I say so!" No reason is given, other than that of the mother imposing her will on her daughter. This is the arbitrary, de facto use of power: "Might makes right."

    1. Definition: An individual or elitist group sets itself up as arbiter of values and uses the necessary force to maintain these values. As democratic consensus rules from below, arbitrary absolutists rule from above.

    2. Example: Marxism--The will of men (party) decides on the values based on subjective principles of dialectic materialism. Lenin would call any action useful to the party moral action; he would call it immoral if it is harmful to the party.

    3. Critique

      1. The arbiter can be a dictator, a parliament, a supreme court, a political party, or any elite configuration which has the power to impose its will upon the populace.

      2. What is enforced is based solely upon what the arbiter decides will be enforced. Emperor worship of the Roman Caesars brought persecution to Jews and Christians who refused to practice it. Plato's Republic would be governed by its philosopher kings. The Catholic Inquisitors summarily tortured and executed unrepentant heretics. B. F. Skinner's Walden Two utopia would be carefully managed by beneficent planners through total environmental control and behavior modification. Soviet Russia was ruthlessly governed by an all-powerful Central Committee and its KGB.

      3. It is important to remember that such arbiters can make something legal but not moral. The 1972 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion is the most pertinent contemporary example. The judges, choosing to ignore medical, legal, and religious precedents on the true humanity of the unborn, made an arbitrary, pragmatic decision. This ruling was legal, but not necessarily moral.

      4. The great flaw in this approach is that it presupposes great trust in those who govern. History has not confirmed the wisdom of placing such confidence in those who wield absolute power. The balancing of power in the U.S. Constitution between the various branches of government reflects the wariness of its framers in giving undue authority to any federal entity.

      5. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. It leads to despotism, tyranny, and bondage.

  4. The True Absolute (Transcendence)

    1. Definition: C. S. Lewis has here identified the "three parts of morality," the first two of which humans are well-acquainted with: internal moral deficiencies and conflict with others through ethical choices. It is the third part for which all humans long: namely, some objective standard to which all humans must adhere.

      Such a standard necessarily transcends the world of description. It presupposes that God exists and has spoken or revealed such standards. The true absolute contends that the Creator of man and nature has given such values which are commensurate with the way He made us and appropriate to people's problems and aspirations.

    2. Example--The Ten Commandments provide the boundaries for the definition of humanness; any act contrary to this true absolute is a violation of our humanity. Further, these standards are not merely external principles, but rather the very essence of the nature and character of God.

    3. Critique

      1. Some things are right; some are wrong, and objectively so. This ethical system is based on normative principles rather than subjective utilitarian ones.

      2. It also provides a basis for conviction: what was right yesterday will be right today. The individual is protected against the whole of society--wicked kings, pragmatic judges, corrupt politicians, decadent populace.

      3. There is also a true and legitimate motive for fighting evil, an objective basis for social change.

©1998 Probe Ministries
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