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What makes something moral?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved,” Dr. Alex Rosenberg of Duke University seeks to answer the question of why it seems so difficult to find a decisive answer for many moral disagreements. He argues that religion would offer a helpful solution if everyone believed the same thing. However, that is clearly not the case and he thus discounts faith as a viable solution.

Rosenberg goes on to cite Plato’s question of whether an action is moral because God commands it or if God commands it because it’s moral as further demonstration of why faith is an inadequate source of definitive moral authority. He claims that most people believe the latter of those options, where morality is not determined by God but rather prescribed by him. That view results more in a sense of security for our moral beliefs than an explanation for why they are correct. Thus, he concludes that “religion may tend to enforce a certain morality, but it certainly can’t show it’s right.”

He continues by exploring whether or not reason might provide the kind of foundation necessary for decisive answers to moral questions. He examines a number of philosophers, such as Kant and Aristotle, who have attempted to answer the question of moral origins. However, as with religion, he concludes that they were all lacking in some way. He argues Kant’s solutions fall short largely because they make morality too individualistic instead of providing an independent standard. Moreover, Aristotle’s claim that “What is morally right is what virtuous people do” is too culturally dependent to provide universal answers.

Ultimately, Rosenberg finds the solution in meta-ethics, a sub-discipline of philosophy that focuses on trying to arrive at standard definitions for moral claims in order to provide a stronger foundation for examination. One of the conclusions yielded by meta-ethics is that many moral claims tend to produce an emotional response that often leads to action. Consequently, he claims that morality is more about our response to an action than something inherent to the action itself. Moreover, since there is much that goes into shaping our emotional responses, such as cultural background and norms, there isn’t really an objective standard to which we can appeal for determining whether or not an action is moral.

Essentially, his argument is that because so many factors go into determining how we respond to something on an emotional level, from the incident itself to how it is presented to us, separating those factors from the act itself in order to determine whether or not it is correct becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. The end result is that our sense of morality becomes little more than an emotional response to something and has little to offer in the way of objective judgment.   

Ultimately, Rosenberg’s argument seems, in many ways, logical but also rather hollow. It’s true that moral debates often illicit an emotional reaction and that there are many factors that go into determining that response. However, that does not necessarily mean  morality is beyond objective judgment.

To that end, it is perhaps not a surprise that I think he dismisses religion far too quickly. Rosenberg is correct when he states that faith would provide a much stronger standard if everyone believed the same thing. However, there are many teachings that are common between the major world religions, such as love and respect for other people, which can help to form a foundation for objective discussion on moral issues.

Moreover, the existence of multiple religions does not discount the possibility that one of them might be more correct than the others. I don’t think he would necessarily disagree with that point, but I do think he underestimates its relevance for the current discussion as he seems to be of the belief that whatever is the correct basis for morality should be inherent to all people. Ultimately, that goes back to his opinion that God prescribes something because it is moral rather than because he determined that it would be so. It is on this point that I feel like he has made the largest mistake.

God is not bound by a sense of morality that is greater than himself. Rather, he is the embodiment of morality and, as a result, his commands are moral because they come from a being who cannot help but be moral. Moreover, he desires that we be holy because he is holy and we are his people (Lev. 11:45, 1 Peter 1:16). To that end, he gave us his instructions on how to live a holy life in the Law, the perfect example of what that life looks like in Jesus, and the power to live it out through salvation in Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Ultimately, it is for those reasons that the God of Christianity is the only perfect and acceptable standard for questions of morality. If that view seems too narrow, it is only because we are looking for a solution that is unnecessarily broad. After all, God’s will has always been that the whole of humanity would live in the kind of life-giving relationship with him that would make such standards both known and acceptable (Genesis 12:2-3, 2 Peter 3:9). However, if we choose to live apart from the author of morality, we should not be surprised when we find that existence to be lacking a moral foundation.  

Sadly, even Christians can live that kind of foundationless existence and it seems like many often do. They may have received salvation in Christ and have access to the Holy Spirit’s power in their lives, but they are choosing to live in such a way that renders those things largely irrelevant. When that happens, we become more prone to believing lies and deceptions that draw us further away from God and hurt our witness as members of his kingdom. Moreover, we position ourselves to be denied the blessings and the kind of full life he longs to give.

So never doubt that God is the only perfect moral foundation for our lives, even if others claim that he is not. There is no better or more moral way for us to live than in accordance with his word and will. Does that describe your life today?