I haven’t posted in quite a while. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t had a lot to say. Maybe its my fear that my words would be a less than productive add-on to the conversations of the world. I’m not sure they won’t be. However, I’ve been thinking. A lot. As I pray and read through social media and news posts (grimacing, I might add), I am drawn back to one question posed in Scripture that seems to have captivated me.
In the trial of Jesus, he’s engaged privately in a conversation with Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea from AD 26-36. As a Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate was granted the power of a supreme judge, which meant that he had the sole authority to order a criminal’s execution. His duties as a prefect included such mundane tasks as tax collection and managing construction projects. But, perhaps his most crucial responsibility was that of maintaining law and order. Pontius Pilate attempted to do so by any means necessary. What he couldn’t negotiate he is said to have accomplished through brute force.
Back to the trial of Jesus. John records the exchange (the 2nd between the two) in chapter 18 of his Gospel:
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 19:33-38, ESV)
A lot of folks lump Pilate in with the list of “Super-Villains of the Bible” and perhaps it isn’t unmerited. However, I think his question, which is an important one, is an expression of a culture that had become devoid of truth’s ability to center and instruct, and correct. He’s speaking from his education, context, background, and the prevailing philosophical views of his time.
Now in 2017 since modernity and postmodernity have come and gone, they’ve left an interesting legacy that leaves us asking Pilate’s question: What is truth?
We’ve seen this recently in terms like Alternative Facts and Post Truth. These ideas are nothing new – in fact, they are the logical next-steps (or the continuation rather) in the philosophical progression of post-modernity that there is no absolute truths or truth is subjective.
Can truth be interpreted differently through various lenses that are dependant on the person? Are there absolutes, whether moral or ethical anymore (remember, only a sith deals in absolutes, btw, just kidding)?
So we have to ask then, what is truth?
Truth, in philosophical terms, is generally defined as such: A statement is true when it corresponds with reality. In other words, a statement is true if it matches up with the way the world really is.
That leads us into the two schools of thought that seem to be clashing today: Subjective Truth vs. Objective Truth
Subjective truth would be me saying the statement Coke is better than Pepsi. it can be true for me but false for you because it is a subjective claim. It has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with me. Thus, it’s subjective, like a preference of ice cream.
What if I said, “Chocolate peanut butter ice cream treats diabetes”? Can this be true for you but not true for me? No, because it is an objective truth, a reality in the external world we discover and cannot change by our feelings. Objective facts are what they are, regardless of how we feel or think about them [think of insulin].
That leads us to the question are morals subjective? Are morals subjective (like soda preference) or are morals objective, like the notion that diabetes is treated with exercise and diet and insulin?
Now we come to another crossroads: Moral Relativism vs. Moral Absolutism.
Moral Relativism is the view that moral truths depend on the individual or group who hold them. There are no moral absolutes, no objective ethical right and wrong. Morals are subjective, like soda preferences.
Moral absolutism holds that a moral rule is true regardless of whether anyone believes it, just like insulin controls diabetes whether anyone knows it or not. Morals can’t be created by personal conviction; nor do they disappear when an individual or culture rejects them. Ethical rules are objective and universally binding in all similar cases.
So why does this matter? Well, if we’re in the Post-Truth Era than it does matter. Because its simply another word for moral relativism.
There are three reasons that Moral Relativism doesn’t work and actually is harmful to humanity.
Moral relativism cheapens human life. When morality is reduced to personal tastes, people exchange the question, “What is good?” for the pleasure question, “What feels good?” Rather than basing decisions on “what is right,” decisions are based on self-interest. When self-interest rules, it has a profound impact on behavior, especially how we treat other human beings. The notion of human dignity depends on there being objective moral truths. Instead, we can discard people when they become troublesome or expensive. More wars, more crime, more oppression, more injustice. Why? Because if morals are relative, all those things are ok.
With moral relativism, anything goes! The death of objective morality is filled with an “anything goes” mentality. Nothing is ultimately wrong if you can get away with it, plus, whose to tell you to stop? It’s ok as long as its right for you, right?
Moral relativism creates moral cowards. If all morality is equal, then why take a moral stand against evil? Why stand up for what I think is right if all morality is subjective, personal.
In line with those three reasons, we reach four philosophical problems with moral relativism:
Problem 1: Moral relativism suffers from what is known as the reformer’s dilemma. If moral relativism is true, then societies cannot have moral reformers. Why? Moral reformers are members of a society that stand outside that society’s moral code and pronounce a need for reform and change in that code. For example, Corrie ten Boom risked her life to save Jews during the Holocaust. William Wilberforce sought the abolition of slavery in the late 18th century. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for civil rights in the U.S. If moral relativism is true, then these reformers were immoral. You see, if an act is right if and only if it is in keeping with a given society’s code, then the moral reformer himself is by definition an immoral person. Moral reformers must always be wrong because they go against the code of their society. But such a view is defective for we all know that real moral reform has taken place!
Problem 2: Moral relativists cannot improve their morality. Neither cultures nor individuals can improve their morality. The only thing they can do is change it. Think of what it means to improve something. Improvement means becoming better at something. But becoming better at something requires an external standard of comparison. To improve a society’s moral code means that the society changes its laws and values closer to an external ideal. If no such standard exists, then there is no way for the new standard to be better than the original; they can only be different. A society can abolish apartheid (racism) in favor of equality. A society can provide equal rights for women. It can guarantee freedom of speech and the press. But according to moral relativism, these are mere changes, not improvements. The Nazis used moral relativism as a defense for their crimes at the Nuremberg trials. The court condemned them because they said there is a law above culture.
Problem 3: Moral relativists cannot complain about the problem of evil. The problem of evil is one of the most commonly raised objections to the existence of God. Some of the great atheists—Bertrand Russell, David Hume, H.G. Wells—concluded on the basis of the evil and suffering in the world that the God of the Bible must not exist (genocide, child abuse, suicide bombings). The common argument is that if God was all-good and all-powerful he would deal with evil. But evil exists, so God must not. The force of this objection rests upon moral evil being real and some things being objectively wrong. But such a claim is peculiar if we understand the nature of evil. Evil is a perversion of good. There can be good without evil, but not evil without good. There can be right without wrong, but not wrong unless there is first right. If morality is ultimately a matter of personal tastes, like ice cream flavor, the argument against God’s existence based on evil vanishes. If evil is real, then so is absolute good, which means moral relativism is false.
Problem 4: Moral relativism is unlivable. Many of us are willing to be a moral relativist when it’s “convenient,” but as soon as someone attempts to steal our stuff, we quickly become a moral absolutist by appealing to fairness. We know what people believe not by what they say or do, but by how they want to be treated. If someone says he doesn’t believe in justice, cut in front of him in line. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Don’t believe people who say that morality is subjective—that murder or rape may not really be objectively wrong
Truth matters. Truth is absolute. Truth will always be found out. Truth is truth no matter what you think or feel. Anything else is just opinion and/or conviction. That’s why holding our political officials, leaders, and ourselves accountable for what we say and do is paramount to an effective and orderly society.
I love you. God loves you more,