In 2009, a thirteen story building in Shanghai was about to open up to the 500 residents who had already rented out each apartment. The builders, however, had poured a shoddy foundation and began to dig a large pit right next to the building for a parking garage. After a rainy day eroded much of the dirt the hollow foundation anchors snapped and the building, like a teenager lazily flopping into bed, fell over.
Arguments, like buildings, require a foundation. If you don’t want the 13th story to come hurtling downwards on rainy afternoon you need to first dig deep and find some terra firma to build on. Before a skyscraper shoots upward the construction workers must go downwards. And the higher they intend for that puppy to go, the deeper down they must dig. Arguments work the same way: the more expansive and sweeping they are, the more solid their foundations must be.
If I say, “I don’t think I should have to eat frozen yogurt,” I don’t need much in the way of a “foundation” for that argument–it is just my personal preference. But if I say something like, “All human beings should be treated with dignity and protection,” I need to have done some serious excavation first because those are rather serious claims.
Is Truth Just Autobiography?
Yet we live in a time where many people believe that arguments like the latter are basically the same as the former: personal preference. In the 20th century it became popular in philosophy circles to assume that all truth claims were fundamentally autobiographical. They did not actually tell us about some universal, objective reality that existed outside of ourselves, but instead told us about the individual’s subjective, psychological reality, their social location, or their interpretation of the world.
When a boy looks at a waterfall and says, “This is sublime,” he appears to be making a comment about the waterfall when, in fact, he is only make a comment about his feelings about the waterfall (Lewis, Men Without Chests). To return to the building metaphor, the digging for the foundation is not a digging into the objective nature of beauty or the world and thus appealing to some universal standard; it is a tunneling down into the subjective mind of the arguer. So if a woman argues that we should care about children in the womb and not kill them, she is not appealing to some universal, external reality; she is just telling us about her own thoughts: she thinks/feels that abortion is wrong. We learn nothing about whether or not abortion is wrong in itself. Arguments and assertions, so it goes, fundamentally rest on our own subjective evaluations. That is all.
Justice Requires a Standard
While this perspective is incompatible with traditional religion, I’d like to suggest, however, that this radical subjectivism actually doesn’t work for our current secular culture either. The recent social-justice movement, for example, does not appear to be making subjective moral claims. The very notion of “justice” is predicated on a universal standard of “right” and “wrong” that is not limited by personal preferences. If one were to ask a BLM or a #MeToo protestor about why they are protesting they aren’t going to say, “Well, I don’t personally agree with racism or rape, but that’s just my perspective.” Of course not. They are going to use the language of absolutes, of universal standards, of justice–this is wrong!
The question of course is why those are wrong. Why is racism wrong? Why is sexual violence and misogyny wrong? If all truth is relative and all morality subjective, who are we to assert that our perspective is somehow superior to anyone else’s? What standard are we appealing to when we say something is unjust if all moral judgments are just personal preferences? After all, maybe if you grew up in that guy’s house, with his brain chemistry, with his experiences, maybe you would prefer to be a racist or a sexual predator yourself. Who are you to judge?
A Consistent Atheist
We can say we don’t like it, we can ask others to listen to our preferences, we can even cudgel other people into submission to our view, but unless we have a some Transcendent Reality, a universal standard to build our morality on we cannot tell people they ought to live a certain way. This was the conclusion that 19th century philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche realized as he took seriously the death of God–if God is dead, if the “horizon has been wiped away”, what basis are we left with to make statements of “good and evil”? There is, according to Nietzsche, none.
Some people in Nietzsche’s day pointed towards Darwin’s theory of evolution as a basis for morality: perhaps morality has been formed and shaped by this so that species can survive better, therefore we ought to live in such a way that leads to our species flourishing. But Nietzsche’s book The Genealogy of Morals waves this argument away. Evolution may describe why certain morals have come to take precedence over others (survival of the species), but that falls short of providing a sufficient basis for morality on two accounts.
First, saying that an act is sub-optimal for survivability is not the same thing as saying that an act is wrong; it leads to something wrong, but functionally is no different than any other act that would inhibit the passing on of our genetic code to our offspring. Second, since evolution only describes a theory of how species adapt to survive, it lacks the sufficient grounding to prescribe morality. Perhaps a certain behavior may lead to my species living longer and that is what societies have called “good”, but why should I care about the survival of the rest of my species? What if living in a way that runs contrary to that purpose brings me the most pleasure?
To not live for the wider species, some would say, is selfish and foolish–to which Nietzsche would respond: who cares? Life is short and pleasure is fleeting, so do what makes you happy. So maybe living a selfless, fair, equitable life is good for humanity, but what if I am happiest when I am being cruel, sadistic, and violent? What if being a racist or a sexual predator brings an individual more pleasure? To argue that there are universal standards that individuals are obligated to obey belies that one is, according to Nietzsche, simply a “Christian in disguise,” too cowardly to shoulder the consequence of “unchaining the earth from the sun.”
Examine Your Foundation
But almost nobody today lives like that. As divided as our culture is at the moment, there are still some things that are self-evidently reprehensible. If a grown man preys sexually on little children or a young woman takes advantage of her grandparents senility to rob them, we are outraged. We don’t say: Well, that’s one way to live your life.
Thus, our wider culture is in a pickle of sorts. If we (rightly) want to emphasize justice and human rights we need some foundation for those things, some reason for why they are universally binding and authoritative. Otherwise we are attempting to build a skyscraper with no foundation, no solid ground under our feet, and when the proverbial winds and rain of injustice come if we aren’t grounded in why those are wrong then, in time, the whole edifice we have built our life on will collapse. So, some questions to reflect on:
- What is the basis for your moral judgments?
- How do you know that that basis aren’t your own personal preferences masquerading as something universal?
- Can your moral system ever contradict or correct you?
- If your moral system is just a by-product of your wider culture or evolution, then what basis do you have for criticizing someone in another culture or another time with different moral systems than you?
- Can your moral system provide a satisfying justification for human rights? For justice?
As a Christian…
Of course, nothing I have written above necessitates being a Christian. At the very least, the argument laid out above could be a case for Theism at the most and Deism at the least.
But I am a Christian, so let me speak briefly about what ethical foundations Christianity in particular provides. As a Christian, my moral standards come from an eternal and immutable God who makes Himself known. He makes Himself known in nature, in the consciences of men, in His inspired Scriptures, and supremely in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus taught that He was the Truth of God incarnate (John 14:6), the very Word of God become flesh (John 1:1-3, 14). He has revealed Himself fundamentally as a God of love and justice and explains that all human beings bear His image and thus are worthy of dignity and respect and ought to reflect His love and justice to those around them. God will hold all individuals accountable for how they have lived their life and will one day judge them all.
Because my God exists externally to me and is outside of culture and time, He can correct me, contradict me, even befuddle me. But this assures me that my morality isn’t just my personal prejudices masquerading as a universal truth. I also am free to be able to correct and and speak against the evils in my culture, even present in the culture that I was raised in and shaped by, because my ethical system is not a by-product of my social location. Finally, because my God displayed the supreme commitment to both love and justice through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, I have a radical commitment to extending love and forgiveness to all, while fiercely holding onto caring about justice and injustice in my society–starting first and foremost with myself.
Christianity, thus, provides a satisfying explanation for my desire for justice, my moral intuitions, and a satisfying foundation for universal standards and the very concept of justice.