Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Some Thoughts on Morality

Have you ever wondered why there is such a thing as right and wrong? I’m sure you did. But I bet, you never bothered to inquire further much less visit the nearest library and do some philosophical or religious readings. “Why bother, It’s not worth my time” a friend of mine said. Then he continued, this time with a pragmatic and ringing response, “From where I sit brod, the idea could have been implanted in my head since I was born.” I was initially taken aback by his answer. I told myself he was supposed to be inquisitive if not a skeptic like me. I should know this for a fact. For several times, I had engaged in a heated cockfight with him way back in law school. It took me a while to realize that, like his indecisive response, his Catholic faith too suffers from the same foundational cracks. At that precise moment, all I can do was to sympathize with him. I felt sad because I have known him as a devout Catholic and a spirited defender of faith. Yet, when his reasons on faith are put to stringent test, I can obviously see the inconvenient irony. Like a mentos candy, his faith appears to be solid and cool on the outside but breaking down inside. Pardon the pun, but I can think of no better analogy than this. Well, for a time aren’t we all? I will not try to second guess your response if the question is presented before you. Tough issues on faith and life are not the most convenient topic to be talk about in coffee shops or dinner tables. They are often viewed as utterly boring and anticlimactic. In fact, when I raise this issue in one of our drinking sessions, a drinking buddy of mine pounded on the table and said, “Pare, what are you talking about, aren’t we suppose to have fun? Yes, alcohol and faith are not perfect buddies. At least, I got the point this time.

In the philosophical arena, when a well-informed atheist wants to argue that God does not exist or that He is simply a pigment of our imagination, the arguments appear to be so convoluted for anyone bereft of philosophical consciousness on the topic. I find it frustrating when Christians shy away with these kinds of intellectual objections. And to make it more candid, a typical Christian will respond by saying, “God forgives you bother” or that “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus!” BAM! That goes straight to my stomach. Pathetic isn’t it? My point here is simple. As Charles Colson puts it, “The Bible commands us to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. If we fail, we will find it increasingly difficult to present the gospel and we will lose influence in the culture.” In my essay entitled, “Why I am still a Christian” I dealt with the existential aspect of faith and reason to support my Christian beliefs. I narrated in part my supposed intellectual doubts on the meaning of life, the origin of morality and ultimately, the existence of God. By way of conclusion, I encourage the readers that it is perfectly normal to encounter doubts and objections if only to strengthen their Christian faith. Through doubts we continuously pursue the truth.

Going back to my friend in law school, what does he mean when he said that “the idea could have been implanted in my head since I was born”? Seen in the philosophical context, his response raises two possible assumptions. He seems to accept that there is some kind of a moral standard from which to distinguish right from wrong. But am I suppose to infer based on his response that that he posits a moral law giver, that is God as the source or revealer of that moral standard? Or can morality exist apart from God? The problem however is not as simple as these two assumptions.Time and again, philosophers and defenders of faith wrestled with this question. The usual old-age arguments for or against God’s existence could be summed up in four major points; (1) the argument from (or to) design, (2) the first cause argument, (3) the argument of morality, and (4) the existence of evil. Of these philosophical arguments, I find the case for morality as the most persuasive evidence to prove the existence of a deity. Not because it is the easiest one amongst the usual objections, but my preference has something to do with my own existential and philosophical journey.

In discussing morality, one cannot simply set aside God in the picture. God as the utmost revealer of right and wrong, provides us with a moral point of reference or a starting point from which to establish our meaning and purpose in life.To put it more bluntly, without Him, everything in this world is meaningless. My point then is this. If God is not in the picture in terms of defining what morality is, what then could be our moral framework from which to distinguish right from wrong? The impact of a Godless society is of course terrifying and very dangerous. How then can Adolf Hitler justify his horrible actions when he exterminated the Jews during the World War II? Or that of Josef Stalin, when he masterminded the large-scale murder of his own people? Were they appealing to some sort of a moral justification for their actions? The answer is yes. This is where the term morality becomes a free-for-all concept for everyone to enjoy. Now then, what could be the moral point of reference for saying that the Holocaust was a moral act? Hitler and Stalin as masters of their own fate clearly subscribed to the atheist worldview-the absence of belief in the existence of God. They deplore Christian theism and religion in general, as something that hampers human progress. Nietzsche for instance viewed religion as the nadir of human progress because it elevated such concepts as morality, repentance, and humility. To him, we cannot build a civilization of power based on these Christian virtues. Now how about that as an objective moral criterion? Logically, having no point of moral reference (except perhaps Nietzsche idea of civilization) to arrive in an objective moral standard, Hitler and Stalin decided to invent their own system of right and wrong. A system to be determined solely on the basis of personal taste or individual preference. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was right when he said that without God everything is permissible. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to discern the ramifications of a Godless society. Without God, we cannot have objective moral guidelines to follow. What we have is a purely subjective discernment on where to distinguish right from wrong.

Now, lest I be accused of bias, let us assume for the sake of argument that God is not an essential element in determining right and wrong. Otherwise stated, take out God in the picture and see if we could at least have an objective standard for morality.

In his magnum opus Critique of Pure Reason, philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to justify a system of right and wrong solely based on the power of reason. Simply put, a moral framework conceived apart from God. In Can Man Live Without God, renowned Christian apologist Dr.Ravi Zacharias simplified Kant’s two simple theses to support his proposition in this manner; First, he asserted that the rules of morality were rational and hence compelling for all rational beings…His foundational premise was clearly and without equivocation that human beings could arrive by unaided reason at a normative dictum for right and wrong. Second, he believed that mankind had within itself the capacity to perform that “ought” in its most noble demands upon the will. Therefore by our reason we can know what is right, and by our will we can do what is right. Under the first, the implication is clear: since the purported rules of morality are in essence reasonable, it is but proper for men as rational beings to follow such rules. The second however is a bit thorny when viewed philosophically. Like any other philosophical theories, Kant’s assertions have several consequent assumptions. It seemed that Kant had the illusion that man is basically good. And that man had an inherent capacity to distinguish right from wrong at first sight using pure reason alone as its basis. As correctly pointed out by Dr. Zacharias, in order to build a reasonable and coherent ethical theory, one must first establish the telos or the purpose and destiny of human life. To Christians, the so called telos is easier to find for there can only be one source of a man’s purpose and destiny in life, and that is God as the revealer of right and wrong. Now, non-believers may raise the argument on the need to establish initially the “purpose” and “destiny” in order to become moral in the theistic sense. The answer is a bit simple: one must have at least a valid starting point or a moral point of reference for one to discern an objective moral standard. That “ought” discernable by men as pointed out by Kant, was the same “ought” which prompted Hitler to exterminate the Jews en masse. That fateful event in human history was the logical consequence of a moral standard structured upon pure reason coupled with man’s desire to play God. The point I wish to make here is this, without the telos centered upon the character of God, any ethical theory will eventually lead to man’s destruction. I can see no point of commonality here, what we see are purely whimsical and subjective moral standards for everyone. What may be reasonable and moral for Hitler may not be reasonable for Mother Teresa isn’t it? In one of the gas ovens in Auschwitz, Hitler's words were inscribed-I want to raise a generation of young people devoid of conscience, imperious, relentless and cruel. Now how about that for a moral point of reference? Are we supposed to trust our own reasons here in determining what morality is? These are some intriguing questions that even Christians must consider in sperading the word of God to non-believers and ultimately to the atheists.

And so to my good friend, it has been my ardent wish that you will find time to read this article so you may be able to position your faith in the right direction. While I do not claim philosophical or intellectual superiority in this writing, but my point is crystal clear: the idea of morality points only to one direction as its primary source and that is God. Kant was right when he said that “man is a rational being.” In the same way, I dare say we Christians too are rational believers of God and followers of Christ. Let us converse about our Christian faith and defend God against intellectual or philosophical objections because in the end we are in fact honoring God as the ultimate source of man's wisdom. Make no mistake about this.

I highly encourage everyone to read Dr.Ravi Zacharias' critically acclaimed book Can Man Live Without God. This marvelous book basically "interrupted my philosophical slumber" as a Christian. I urge you to do the same.