Sunday, March 20, 2005

Becoming Moral

A recent press release presents a short statement from Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, about the foundation of morality. Mr. Brook argues that morality does not need to be rooted in faith in God, as some claim, and moreover, that faith in God, being "blind" and not rationally chosen, is incompatible with morality. The press release appears below, followed by my response.

Morality vs. God

The idea that morality is impossible without faith in God is an endlessly-repeated theme of several Fox News Channel talk show hosts. “This idea must be challenged,” said Dr. Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

“It implies that man has no reason or purpose to be moral; it implies that no rational standard of morality is possible; it implies that in questions of morality man must suspend reason and blindly submit to faith or blindly obey some authority’s ‘revelations’ or ‘mystical insights.’ To imply that we have no earthly reason to be moral is profoundly immoral.

“The purpose of morality,” said Dr. Brook, “is to discover and teach the principles that lead to life, achievement, happiness, success, joy. There is only one means to discover and understand these principles: reason. A proper morality, one for living on earth, requires rationality and independence of soul, not faith and obedience to self-appointed interpreters of an alleged omnipotent being. A proper morality looks not to the supernatural but at man’s nature and the reason why he needs values--and then defines the values he must reach and the virtues he must practice to reach them.

Dr. Brook concluded: “Properly understood, not only does morality not require faith in God--morality is incompatible with faith in God. The moral is the rationally accepted and chosen, not the mindlessly believed and followed.”

My Response
Certainly the use of reason or rationality is involved in one developing morality; however, it is an overstatement that one becomes moral only through a process of reasoning, as Mr. Yaron maintains. For example, even young children seem to know when they are doing something wrong, prior to having been fully taught the reasons behind their ethical choices. What of those who are mentally impaired, whose reasoning powers are thus severely limited— are such people incapable of acting morally? On the contrary, it seems that many such people can exhibit a true sense of right and wrong, and are able to discern and act according to moral sense.

The Judeao-Christian argument that God is the ultimate source of morality is founded upon the idea that morality is only possible when derived from absolute truth, from a standard outside of humanity itself. How can a moral code based upon the idea of self-interest not be rife with conflict, since what I perceive to be in accord with my self-interest someone else will say conflicts with their self-interest? And if one of us appeals to the other to change their behavior, on the basis that the proposed adjustment would actually be to our mutual self-interest, would I not be appealing to some kind of outside standard that governs us both?

Without absolute truth as a foundation, any system of morality is arbitrary. How, or why, shall I agree with you that certain things are right or wrong, unless somehow the rightness or wrongness of certain actions is self-evident? And how can they be self-evident, unless based upon absolute truths we may readily perceive and agree upon?

A moral code based upon the reasoning powers of its practitioners is limited by the ability of one person to propose better, more “rational” arguments than another. But how do you define the rationality upon which such a moral code is built? Is it most rational to live in such a way that my self-interest is served, or is it more rational if our self-interest guides my ethical choices? On what basis do I make these determinations? Perhaps a “rational” world should function according to a moral code that when followed brings the most good to the largest number of people. Yet without absolutes to compare against, even this definition of what is rational and good is arbitrary. How is the “good” defined? Whose good is it?

The Bible says we are made in God's image. For this reason, I propose, we are ethical beings by nature; God built into us the ability to be moral, as He is. However, as we are flawed beings, so also our moral sense is flawed. Only God, in His moral perfection, is absolutely unerring in distinguishing right from wrong. Only One whose motives and actions are pure (undefiled by sin) can understand true righteousness and act accordingly. We, other the other hand, need divine revelation in order to see right and wrong fully and clearly.

I believe this revelation comes in part through the conscience, the God-given instinct that enables us to know right and wrong, even prior to being taught. The development of moral maturity involves education, but not only the education of the mind. The deep-rooted and fatal flaws of human nature (known as sin) must also be removed.

How is this accomplished? Again Christians look to the Bible as a gracious revelation of God's laws, helping us see more precisely which actions are right and wrong, as compared against the absolute standard of the holiness of God’s character. Because God Himself has absolute quailities, such as moral perfection, such as thing as absolute truth exists. it is only by comparing our ideas of morality against the absolute and pure standard of God and His revealed truth that we can determine their validity. But as we do so the ethical standards of the Bible, and especially Jesus, seem impossible to attain. Can I really "turn the other check" and "love my enemies" as Jesus commands?

Philosophies based upon the idea that an enlightened self-interest will lead people to live ethically and find peace and harmony with each other don't fully take into account the reality of the evil in the world and within ourselves. The Bible calls this evil sin and has a solution for it, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death killed sin and sin's effects--removing the guilt of sin from our shoulders, removing the destructive power of sin out of our lives. For those who have put their trust in the gospel, the evil inside them was dealt a fatal blow by the power of Jesus Christ. In its place, the Spirit of God comes to give the Christian a new life, filled with the power of the Spirit. A new desire is born, to live a life that does not serve self-interest alone, but instead delights in and serves God. It is this power that makes the "impossible" standards of Jesus possible to live out.

I agree with Mr. Yaron that morality is required in order to live life right here on Earth. Yet to become a truly moral person must mean to find what true morality consists in, and I have argued above that one cannot make such a determination without an appeal to absolute, self-evident principles. Followers of Ayn Rand would perhaps argue for self-interest being one of those. But the realistic view of human nature that the Bible presents shows that even enlightened self-interest cannot overcome the limitations imposed upon it by the evil present in ourselves and others.

In contrast to self-interest, Jesus Christ lived His life to serve others. Paradoxically, such a life does end up serving the "self-interest" of both the individual and others.

Mat 16:25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.


Chilly said...

C.S.Lewis's excellent book "The Abolition of Man" has some wonderful thoughts on the subject as well as his essay "On Ethics". Rational thinking is a wonderful tool for deriving new truths from old ones, but it has no power to establish the "first truths" from which all others flow. Christians maintain that God provides those first truths through the Bible, through the life of Jesus, and through the conscience God has implanted in all of us. Given these "axioms" and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we have the hope of reasoning accurately about morality. Lewis argues persuasively that a primary goal of childhood education (in the broad sense -- not just the thing done in school) is to strengthen our understanding and appreciation of these axioms, which are apprehended not primarily through reason but through the heart (the "chest", he calls it).

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