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Friday, September 10, 2010

“Does truth in morality exist? If so, does it matter?”

It’s rather strange that as humanity progresses, it seems to become more ignorant. There was a time when people would argue over whether or not a recorded event was true, or whether or not a particular belief was true, or whether or not the local news report was true. Only recently did we start asking questions that really bring to light how delusional we have become. I recall hearing of a seminar in which one of the audience members told the speaker that he was not sure that he existed. The speaker was flabbergasted. “What has happened to this generation that it has become so disorientated and confused as to question its own existence?” the speaker wondered. He then asked the audience member a simple question that brought that poor soul back to a state of certainty: “And who, might I say, is asking?”

Would it be inaccurate to say that “we can’t handle the truth”? I think not. In fact, we demand truth in almost every major facet of our lives. We demand truth from our loved ones (who wants to be lied to by a family member?). We demand truth from our doctors (I hope people are making sure that they’re getting the right diagnoses for their medical needs). We demand truth from courtrooms (we should be making sure that only people who are truly guilty are being convicted). We expect to be told the truth every time we read a reference book, or a news article, or a weather report. We demand to be told the truth from lawyers, teachers, and government officials. We assume that things like road signs, food labels, and medicine bottles tell us the truth. For some reason, though, when it comes to morality most say that they are not interested in truth. Why is this?

I find that it is mostly for selfish reasons. People simply do not want to be held accountable to any standard of morality. They think that life would be more enjoyable without being obligated to behave in any certain way. Perhaps it is as St. Augustine said:

“We love the truth when it enlightens us, but we hate it when it convicts us.”

Also, what I’ve found is that people who claim to believe that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong are really only deluding themselves. They do not really believe that. The most effective way to discover this is simply to treat them in a way that they find morally offensive. Consider the following.

There was once a professor at a major university in Indiana who was teaching a class on ethics. He gave the students a term paper assignment in which they were allowed to write on any ethical subject of their choosing. The only restriction was that they had to support their thesis statements with reasons and documentation. One of the students in question was an atheist. Of course, part of the atheistic mindset is that since there is no god, then there is no absolute higher authority to establish a moral law to which all are subject. Thus, he decided to write on the subject of moral relativism.

His thesis consisted of statements like, “There is no right and wrong”, “There is no absolute standard of fairness or justice”, “It’s all a matter of personal taste and opinion”, “You like chocolate; I like vanilla”, and so forth and so on. He gave his reasons and his documentation. The paper was the right length, it was on time, and the student even put it in a stylishly blue folder. The professor read through the entire paper; and after finishing, he gave the student an “F”. The reason behind this was not the quality of the paper, but the color of the folder. It turns out that he didn’t like the color blue.

Needless to say, the student was furious. He came through the professor’s door shouting all kinds of accusations, such as, “’F! I don’t like blue folders’?! That’s not fair! That’s not right! That’s not just! You didn’t grade the paper by its merits!” The professor put up a hand to silence the young man and calmly replied, “Whoa, hold on a minute. I read a lot of papers, so let me look. Ah, yes. Yours was the paper that argued that there is no right and wrong? No absolute standard of fairness or justice?”

“Right…” the student replied.

“Then what’s with your storming into my office telling me that I’m not being right or fair or just?” the professor remarked. “Didn’t you argue that it’s all a matter of personal taste and opinion? ‘You like chocolate; I like vanilla’?”

“Yes, that’s what I really believe,” the student admitted.

“Well, I don’t like blue. You get an ‘F’.”

Let us examine what happened here. The student brought a moral accusation against the professor. What was that accusation based on? Was it based on the idea that the professor’s action didn’t happened to tickle the student’s personal fancy? Hardly. Was it based on the idea that the professor just hurt the student’s feelings? Not so. As I recall from the student’s words, his accusation was based on the idea that what the professor did was absolutely, universally, and without question or doubt wrong. But he could not make such an accusation if there is no such thing as right and wrong. He might as well have stormed into that office saying that the professor’s preference for strawberries over bananas wasn’t right or fair or just.

So I ask the public: Is what the student said the truth, or was it nothing more than his own subjective, pragmatic, emotive, and self-absorbed opinion? If it was the former, then he had every right to be furious. If it was the latter, then the professor was under no moral obligation to give any heed or respect to the opinions of others, and thus he had every right to blow off the student’s moral outburst. So which was it?

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