“Hey, That’s Not Right!”
The Boston Marathon is, by any stretch of the imagination, an amazing event; it’s an amazing race. I think it’s the longest running annual marathon in the world today; it’s been going on since 1897. It boasts some 30,000+ competitors and over 500,000 people line the streets to watch the event. It is a truly amazing event. Runners come from all over the world, from a variety of nationalities and countries, come to participate in this race.
It’s actually a very prestigious event to win, one of the top seven in the world. So, if you want to compete in this event, if you want to place or even win this event, you’re going to have to train hard. But, even before any training, you will need to qualify by running another marathon within a year of the Boston Marathon, and within certain qualifying times. That itself is going to take a ton of training. But, if you want to compete seriously, to attempt to place and perhaps even win the Boston Marathon, you’re going to have to work hard, and train hard, unless of course you cheat. Then, the whole thing changes; you won’t need to train so hard, so long, and commit so much of your life to running. You can actually do it quite a bit easier.
And, that’s exactly what happened in April of 1980 when Rosie Ruiz, a female runner, decided to cheat. She decided, according to observers, to hop onto the course through the crowd around a mile to a half-mile from the finish line. She went on to her so called victory, but it was short-lived. Immediately there were suspicions. Observers noticed that she sure didn’t look like she had run 26 miles. She wasn’t panting or sweating. Something was wrong. A couple of Harvard students said they noticed her make her way through the crowd and then burst out on to the street around that half mile point from the finish line. Competitors said they never recalled seeing her throughout the race and when questioned, she was unable to speak knowledgeably about parts of the 26 mile course. No indeed, there was something wrong and when the Boston Marathon officials looked into the matter, they concluded that she had indeed cheated. She was summarily disqualified eight days later and stripped of the title.
For our purposes today, what’s interesting about this whole fiasco is this: nobody thought that what she had done was okay. Everyone immediately recognized that it was wrong. No argument – detailed or otherwise – was necessary. It was as plain as the light of day. No one needed to be convinced that Rosie Ruiz’s cheating was wrong. Indeed, if you had a friend who thought that in some way it was ok for Ruiz to steal by deception what was not hers, wouldn’t you tend to think that your friend was somehow lacking in moral judgment, significantly lacking actually. The truth is, everyone knows it’s wrong, and while we may disagree on all that should be done about it, the wrongness strikes us immediately, without argument, like the bitter taste of lemon.
But, I wonder where this sense of right and wrong comes from when it’s so obvious in some scenarios, like this Boston Marathon scenario. Where does it come from? Well, there are different answers to that question, but I wonder if it points us beyond ourselves and to our Guide, to God, But again, not all would agree with that conclusion.
Where does this “moral law” come from?
Some say that our morality, that law of “right and wrong” that we find in ourselves, doesn’t really come from God. It actually comes from our culture. It’s rooted in culture. But, I wonder if that’s true. This is what Columbia professor and former president of the American Anthropological Association fundamentally claimed, namely, that our morality is really nothing more than a cultural adaptation or expression within a certain geographical locale. In that framework, the moral law, as it were, is held to be merely a culture-bound expression or convention, similar to the languages we speak. It – and our morality too – could have been different than it is. For the moral relativist, morality as a fact is nothing more than the product of our experiences and the influences upon us, devolving into mere preference.
But is that really true? If it is true, then I am not really in any place to pass judgment on another culture’s moral code, per se. So, it seems then, that I am in no position to pass judgment on the Nazi atrocities. Yet, Nuremberg rightly thought differently. Was the Holocaust and the senseless, brutal and vicious murder of millions of men, women, and children really wrong? Well, if my moral code is merely one among many cultural adaptations, then I have no grounds by which to judge a moral code espoused and practiced in the 1930’s and 40’s in Hitler’s Germany – and neither do the rest of the world. You and I have no real basis for condemning those who routinely performed experiments on living human beings, killing them mercilessly. We cannot judge the concentration camps, the mass graves, Stalin’s horrors, those of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and many others. I may not like what happened, I may even hate it, but if morality is finally and ultimately only cultural, my outrage is nothing more than preference. I might as well be talking about my favorite color.
But again, the stakes are high. The morality-as-merely-cultural reading seems to be at odds with our experience on every important front. For starters if completely fails to explain with any cogency what happened in the 1980 Boston Marathon. There were athletes from many different cultures weighing in, instantly and without any need for thought: what Rosie Ruiz did, in their judgment, was wrong, in every conceivable world and at all times.
Yes, I wonder. I don’t think it’s likely that morality is grounded in cultural adaptions; moral judgments may come to expression differently in different cultures, to be sure – and some cultures may clash as a result – but the fact of morality and the moral law does not seem to be rooted in the shifting realities of cultural soil. After all, could we really conceive of a world where it’s always right to steal or stealing is praised by everyone? Could we live in a culture where cheating other people out of what is lawfully theirs is publicly praised? How about habitual lying? Killing innocent people? I don’t think so. The reason: we all know that those practices are wrong. Again, it’s hard to conceive of a culture in which rape is praiseworthy. It seems that we have a fundamental sense of the Golden Rule in all of us. Every human being knows, at some level, that we ought not to do evil to other people and that we ought to treat them fairly. It appears, therefore, that our sense of oughtness, right and wrong, is universal, real, and is that by which we judge behavior as good or bad. It is obviously expressed in people, cultures and nations, but it transcends these realities and does not owe its origin to them.
But, others say that right and wrong – the moral code or ‘law of decency’, as C S Lewis often referred to it – is more like instinct. In other words, we have one instinct to do one thing and another instinct to do another; morality is just whatever instinct we choose to act on. But, there’s a problem here. We’re not referring to what people actually do instinctively or in any other manner; we’re talking about what they ought to do or ought not to do. Let me give you an example. Let’s suppose you own a construction company and you promised your project managers, a dozen of them, that you would pay them each a 10% bonus if they hit certain financial metrics by the end of the year. Well, the end of the year comes and, guess what, they hit their targets. Indeed, they exceeded them by three times. Now, that 10% bonus which you as the owner were expecting to be around $5,000 each comes to $15,000 each. Though you have the money, you are reluctant to pay. You weren’t counting on having to pay that much. So, you start telling yourself that you’re not going to pay. “After all, I’m the one taking all the risks,” you whisper to yourself. “I’m the one with the operating line. I’m the one who’s put up the chattel – my home and a good deal of other things I own – to make this company work. I shouldn’t have to pay that much.” Never mind that your profits were three-fold. So, you start to weigh the promise you made to pay a certain percent against your own desire to keep the money.
But, at one and the same time, there is a third reality in play in your heart. You can attempt to drown it, but it’s there, nonetheless, weighing in on the matter. According to C. S. Lewis, this third reality is not, and cannot be, one of the instincts or impulses, i.e., the instinct to pay or the instinct to withhold. It itself is not one of the instincts; it’s passing judgment on both. And you know what it’s obligating you to do. It is not suggesting; it is commanding and it does not care that the amount is $15,000 or $500,000.
To see the force of what Lewis is saying, just consider the opposite. In other words, if you were suddenly put into the place of any of the project managers, you’d likely have a completely different judgment on the matter. As a project manager, the owner’s failure to pay, for no good reason, is culpable; it’s wrong and you think it’s unacceptable to have to convince the owner of that. It’s a fact like the fact that the Eiffel tower is in Paris. That’s wrong and the moral law passes judgment on it. So, I don’t think that the moral law in and of itself is one of our instincts, i.e., just what people do. If that were true, as we’re often told that it is, Rosie Ruiz did nothing wrong; she only made one choice as opposed to another. But, this cannot be; we know that she cheated and that cheating is wrong.
From Naturalistic Evolution?
But there’s often a third answer given as to where morality comes from. Some contend that morality comes from evolution and naturalistic evolutionary processes. They tell us that the law we find within ourselves regarding right and wrong, and our experience of it, is nothing more than the product of evolutionary chance, the culmination, if you will, of a series of completely random, completely chance, non-rational, non-sentient processes – a completely accidental collision of atoms over time.
But, if this is true, why did everyone from their various cultures claim that what Rosie Ruiz did was wrong? If naturalism were true, shouldn’t there have been more randomness and arbitrariness in this otherwise monolithic response? But, even if not, I am still left with no real grounds for claiming that what she did was wrong, since my moral opinions are simply generated by a purely blind, chance process. Similarly, I am left with no real, universal grounds for claiming that selling 12 year children into the sex-trafficking trade is wrong or that rape is wrong either. Naturalistic evolution suspends morality and moral judgments in mid-air; they are not at all what we typically think and they certainly express nothing about the real world. Why? Because we can’t get a moral “ought” from a material “is”. So called moral judgments, on the naturalistic reading of things, are really nothing more than an expression of preference or taste. We might as well be talking about our favorite movie.
There’s actually another problem – a self-defeating problem – that emerges as we inspect naturalistic evolution a little closer. The problem concerns the brains we use to create and evaluate these theories. What I mean is this: let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that we are the product of random chance, of a completely non-rational collision of atoms over time. That means that our bodies are nothing more than the products of those random, purposeless processes and collisions. That reality further entails the reality that our brains are themselves the product of the random collision of atoms and so also any theories – moral or otherwise – they come up with. This leaves me in the precarious spot of being asked to believe something is a certain way when the processes used to create that belief are necessarily 100% arbitrary. This is self-defeating and the belief is inherently unstable.
In the end it does not seem likely that the fact of morality and the moral law come from culture, instinct, or blind evolutionary processes. The law is real and universal and is not merely culturally based or determined. It is not merely instinct or the haphazard result of mindless processes.
It seems that there is more than meets the eye here and that right and wrong point us in another direction, away from culture, instinct and chance. It seems that this “law of decency” may be a sign of our Guide, a personal God who is inflexibly good and to whom we are accountable. Perhaps it is a sign that points us beyond ourselves to the One who designed both us and the world in a certain way.