Stealing is immoral, murder is wrong, and telling a lie is unacceptable. It is possible, maybe even common, that two people could affirm these statements, and yet not agree with each other. Confused?

 

In our day, morality is a topic most Americans recognize and consider important, and yet struggle to understand. This is especially true when people give an ethical opinion about a moral action or thought; though they may say the same the words (e.g., "murder is wrong"), they are not necessarily saying the same thing.     

 

Consider the example of stealing with two fictional characters: Both Jeff and Sue believe that taking something that belongs to another is immoral. But a closer look at why Jeff and Sue hold their respective views on stealing reveals an important difference. Jeff grounds his view on a complex mix of personal feelings, cultural pressure, and the law, but he rejects the idea that stealing is wrong for any ultimate or binding reasons. Therefore, when pressed if it is immoral to steal bread when hungry or lift music when low on money, Jeff may comfortably make allowances to his view, a view that provides Jeff the freedom to create his own moral preferences.

 

In contrast, Sue affirms stealing is wrong because she believes there exists absolute truth and a binding moral law. (For the purposes of this article, I won’t concern myself with identifying the "absolute truths" in which Sue believes.) She believes that morality is not an individual or cultural creation, but that just as there are scientific laws mankind depends on to understand the physical ways of the world, so there are moral laws that shape what it means to live a flourishing human life. Sue would be the first to admit that she is not perfect in obeying the moral laws that she supports, but she realizes she does not have the authority to create morality. 

 

Here is why this matters: Sue represents an increasingly neglected vision of morality that holds that right and wrong are ultimately rooted in the existence of some absolute truth. Jeff, on the other hand, represents those who throw out the baby but keep the bath water by retaining the word "moral" and yet gutting it of any authoritative meaning. This latter approach, often labeled as relativism or postmodernism, illustrates a belief that what is ethical is free to be decided and even created by an individual or a culture. While this view may come across as moral emancipation (freedom to express and experiment, freedom from guilt, and freedom from ultimate accountability and judgment), our nation should be forewarned: it may taste sweet in the mouth, but it will soon sour in the stomach.

 

First, moral expression without belief in moral absolutes always leads people into isolation. Without a common view of ethics, and common source for why something is ethical, there is not a common ground for preferred right living. Today, in households across America parents are encouraging their teenage children to make good choices: avoid drugs, don't sleep around, work hard in school, etc. While few would question the moral counsel of these parents, if their teenager(s) pressed for a reason why they should follow their parents' advice, without absolute truth the parent has only two possible responses: stand on their authority ("Because I said so!") or list the potential consequences from making bad choices. Yet neither of these options gives the parent and child relationship common ground for what is actually a moral choice (e.g., it is morally wrong to have sex outside of wedlock). Often, the result of a scene like this is that the parent and teenager add another layer of isolation as the child views the parents as "old-fashioned" and as "killjoys," and the parents see their children as potentially reckless and immoral.

 

A second consequence to the removal of moral absolutes is that moral boundaries become adjustable. If it is true that a person or group has the authority to create moral truths (usually based on personal benefit) then it is also true they have the authority to change them. For example, consider television programming. It has long been debated as to whether Hollywood shapes culture or mirrors it (or both, as pointed out by Lee Loevinger)1, but regardless, each year a new line-up of TV sitcoms is produced that pushes the moral boundaries. The Fall 2012 line-up has a smorgasbord of programming to air during family friendly hours that contains foul language (e.g., Modern Family), sex (e.g.,  84% of sitcoms have sexual talk or action according to the Kaiser Family Foundation), and promotes homosexuality (e.g., The New Normal) and narcissism (e.g., The X Factor). When moral absolutes are removed, it becomes culturally acceptable and even expected that moral boundaries will move.

 

When a community or nation of people removes moral absolutes they naturally become a law (or laws) unto themselves as people will tend to do what is right in their own eyes. This was the lifestyle of ancient Israel during their historically darkest days as a nation millennia ago (see Judges 21:25). It is a principle of life, perhaps even a moral absolute, that a person, in an ultimate sense, cannot live a life of habitual immorality and get away with it. Our world operates with law-like precision at many levels: the sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and there also are certain moral laws that, when ignored or violated, will result in consequences. As a nation we are a deeply isolated people when we long for community, we are a foolish nation when we should be wise, we are a fearful people when we desire genuine security, we are an aimless society when we desperately seek purpose, and we are a depressed society when we long to be happy. As we Americans have incrementally unhinged ourselves from moral absolutes we have removed the baby (what actually has value) and kept the dirty bathwater. I have hope that we will understand sooner rather than later the high cost to our nation of dismissing moral absolutes—and that we adjust our course before we live to regret it.

 

  • Ryan P. Whitson is a professor of Ethics and Sociology at Colorado Technical University, and is working on his doctorate in theology at Talbot School of Theology.   He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Reference

1. Lee Loevinger (1968), "The Ambiguous Mirror: The Reflective-Projective Theory of Broadcasting and Mass Communication."  Journal of Broadcasting, 12:2: 97-116,