Moral Absolutes: The Case for Judeo-Christian Values, Part XI
Nothing more separates Judeo-Christian values from secular values than the question of whether morality -- what is good or evil -- is absolute or relative. In other words, is there an objective right or wrong, or is right or wrong a matter of personal opinion?
In the Judeo-Christian value system, God is the source of moral values and therefore what is moral and immoral transcends personal or societal opinion. Without God, each society or individual makes up its or his/her moral standards. But once individuals or societies become the source of right and wrong, right and wrong, good and evil, are merely adjectives describing one's preferences. This is known as moral relativism, and it is the dominant attitude toward morality in modern secular society.
Moral relativism means that murder, for example, is not objectively wrong; you may feel it's wrong, but it is no more objectively wrong than your feeling that some music is awful renders that music objectively awful. It's all a matter of personal feeling. That is why in secular society people are far more prone to regard moral judgments as merely feelings. Children are increasingly raised to ask the question, "How do you feel about it?" rather than, "Is it right or wrong?"
Only if God, the transcendent source of morality, says murder is wrong, is it wrong, and not merely one man's or one society's opinion.
Most secular individuals do not confront these consequences of moral relativism. It is too painful for most decent secular people to realize that their moral relativism, their godless morality, means that murder is not really wrong, that "I think murder is wrong," is as meaningless as "I think purple is ugly."
That is why our culture has so venerated the Ten Commandments -- it is a fixed set of God-given moral laws and principles. But that is also why opponents of America remaining a Judeo-Christian country, people who advocate moral relativism, want the Ten Commandments removed from all public buildings. The Ten Commandments represents objective, i.e., God-based morality.
All this should be quite clear, but there is one aspect of moral relativism that confuses many believers in Judeo-Christian moral absolutes. They assume that situational ethics is the same thing as moral relativism and therefore regard situational ethics as incompatible with Judeo-Christian morality. They mistakenly argue that just as allowing individuals to determine what is right and wrong negates moral absolutes, allowing situations to determine what is right and wrong also negates moral absolutes.
This is a misunderstanding of the meaning of moral absolutes. It means that if an act is good or bad, it is good or bad for everyone in the identical situation ("universal morality").
But "everyone" is hardly the same as "every situation." An act that is wrong is wrong for everyone in the same situation, but almost no act is wrong in every situation. Sexual intercourse in marriage is sacred; when violently coerced, it is rape. Truth telling is usually right, but if, during World War II, Nazis asked you where a Jewish family was hiding, telling them the truth would have been evil.
So, too, it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. That is why the Ten Commandments says "Do not murder," not "Do not kill." Murder is immoral killing, and it is the situation that determines when killing is immoral and therefore murder. Pacifism, the belief that it is wrong to take a life in every situation, is based on the mistaken belief that absolute morality means "in every situation" rather than "for everyone in the same situation." For this reason, it has no basis in Judeo-Christian values, which holds that there is moral killing (self-defense, defending other innocents, taking the life of a murderer) and immoral killing (intentional murder of an innocent individual, wars of aggression, terrorism, etc.).
But situational ethics aside, the key element to Judeo-Christian morality remains simply this: There is good and there is evil independent of personal or societal opinion; and in order to determine what it is, one must ask, "How would God and my God-based text judge this action?" rather than, "How do I -- or my society -- feel about it?"
That different religious people will at times come up with different responses in no way negates the fact that at least they may be pursuing moral truth. In secular society, where there is no God-based morality, there is no moral truth to pursue. The consequences may be easily seen by observing that the most morally confused institution in America, the university -- where good and evil are often either denied or inverted -- is also its most secular.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host, columnist and author of four books, including Think a Second Time (HarperCollins), containing 44 of his essays.