Morality and ethics without absolutes

By Dave, the WM

"A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."

"There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair."

— Albert Einstein

When it comes to ethical decisions and moral behavior,

What is right?

What is wrong?

What is good?

What is bad?

And, do we really need a god to tell us what these words mean?

Ethics and morals aren't exactly the same thing. However, in Christian circles the terms are usually used interchangeably. So, for the sake of this discussion, morality and ethical behavior will be considered synonymous.

When I was a Christian, innumerable sermons, messages, pamphlets, and books crossed my eyes and flooded my ears with the dogma of moral absolutism. God had decreed HIS Law. He had embedded it in the hearts and minds of men. HE had written it on tablets of stone. Those laws were foundational to family life. Those tablets were the cornerstones to ordered society. HIS absolute Law is the bedrock upon which all people must build their lives and homes.

Moral relativism, on the other hand, was fiercely denounced as a doctrine birthed in the pit of hell. This idea, if it ever gained wide-spread acceptance, would usher in an era of moral collapse and chaos. The very fabric of society would be rent in twain, and Satan himself would walk our streets.

OK, no one said Satan would walk our streets, but it was generally agreed that without the absolute moral authority of the Bible, the 10 Commandments, etc., the world might stop spinning in its orbit, or something. At the very least, violence and mayhem would be commonplace. A shadowy vision of a lawless, post-apocalyptic landscape would come to mind whenever relativism was mentioned.

I completely bought into that Christian viewpoint.

"Isn't it obvious?" I'd ask. "God Himself describes what is good. God is good. And sin is the transgression of the Law of God."

I was comfortable with this position because morality this simply defined was easy to understand. I knew right from wrong because God had given me some natural knowledge, His Word to confirm that inner knowledge, and bound it all together with the witness of His Spirit in my heart.

Who needs a philosophical education on ethics when you possess a mystical triumvirate of moral certitude?

Obviously I've abandoned that position now, but I didn't do it without a measure of fear and uncertainty. Because of my long programming, I wondered if it was possible to be moral without the restraining influences of a belief in God. What was to keep me from diving head-long into hedonism? What would keep me from devolving into a drunken glutton whose mantra would be "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!"

Isn't being debauched what "True Infidelity™" is all about?

Now, several years later, without a belief in an afterlife or in a God who is waiting to punish me, I haven't appreciably changed my lifestyle. I still hold down a job, obey the speed limit, pay my taxes, love my family, deal honestly with others, am devotedly faithful to my wife, am not given to frequent outbursts of rage, regularly bathe, brush my teeth, and comb my hair.

In essence, there's been no significant change at all in my behavior. If anything, some of my behavior has improved: I'm less prone to harshly and narrowly judge my fellow human beings.

The thought of relativism scared me as a Christian. It scares many Christians because to admit that morals can change based on cultural, historical, familial, or other influences and norms, opens wide the door to possibilities such as that Hitler and Stalin couldn't be judged as any more immoral than my grandmother. In other words, if we have no Law Maker in the sky, how can anyone say that the things Hitler and Stalin did were bad?


Well, if we do have a Law Maker in the sky that says the things Hitler and Stalin did was bad, would that make they did bad?

What I mean is, is genocide and mass-murder bad because a so-called god says so, or is it bad for some other reason? If God said genocide and mass-murder were good, would it be OK to kill with impunity and without mercy?

Said another way, is what Hitler and Stalin did only bad because a god says so? Do we really need a god to tell us that these two guys were monsters?

Are things wrong because a god has decreed certain things bad, or are certain things inherently bad in and of themselves. If God commits genocide is it good? If God commands us to commit genocide, is it good? Whether or not God would ever ask such behavior of us is beside the point. To say that God's nature is good, and HE must obey His nature is also avoiding the question. If God commanded you to murder another human being, would God be commanding something good or something bad?

There are a couple of points here:
  1. Since God supposedly cannot perform evil acts or order evil acts, or call evil good or good evil, it suggests that He answers to a law of morality outside and above Himself. Clearly God cannot arbitrarily declare murder bad one day and good the next. Either murder is bad or it is not, right?
  2. Christianity is morally relativistic.

"Thou shalt not bear false witness..."

Lying is a sin. Lying is breaking the Law of God.

Yet, Corrie Ten Boom, the famous Christian author who wrote of her experiences during the Nazi occupation of Holland in WWII, hid Jewish people in her home. She repeatedly denied to the authorities that she was hiding anyone. Over and over, she lied.

Personally, I think she did the right thing. She did the morally right thing. But she still lied. She lied to protect the lives of others who would die if she told the truth. She made a morally relativistic decision.

What if you were a Christian, serving as a soldier in the United States army during WWII, and you were commanded to assassinate Hitler? Assassinating Hitler — would that be morally good or morally bad?

What if the command to kill Hitler came late in the war, after many millions of people had died?

What if the command to kill Hitler came early in the war, before hostilities broke out?

What if the command to kill Hitler came when Hitler was a child?

I betting that honest people attempting to answer those questions will admit that their answers changed depending on the way the question was phrased, depending on the circumstances described. While at one point, killing Hitler might seem like the morally right thing to do. Killing a child, even Hitler as a child, would give most people pause.

For me, when I began to realize that even in Christianity there are no moral absolutes, that moral decisions change and adjust with the circumstances, I started to break free of the fear that some sort of horrific moral chaos would overwhelm our world without bible-god.

If it were easy to determine right from wrong or good from bad, we wouldn't need so many laws, lawyers, and judges. If morality was something written in stone, slavery wouldn't have been tolerated throughout nearly 1,900 years of Christian history. We all know that slavery is wrong, don't we? Yet, not once in the entire Bible is the practice called wrong.

Here's something bold: Perhaps, in ancient times, slavery wasn't wrong! Perhaps it's only wrong now!

Christians want it both ways. They want to claim a hold on moral absolutes, but will defend things like slavery with moral relativistic rhetoric.

The reality is that there are no clear absolutes when it comes to morality. Does that mean that anything goes, so party on, dude? Does that mean Hitler and Stalin are, after all, no less moral than my grandmother?


It's apparent that human beings have evolved with a need for socialization, for community, for family, for building tribes and cities and nations. We generally all want to live and be happy, and the best way to do that is to live together in peace. Were not that far from our Paleolithic roots, however, so we still have a long way to go. Shedding our primitive superstitious nonsense like so many worn out rags will be a good step in the right direction.

I no longer envision all humans with Christian pessimism. I do not think people are morally depraved demon fodder more fit for the fire than for anything else. I don't necessarily think all people are basically good, either. I think it all depends on the relative circumstances we find ourselves in.

In any event, morality is strictly a human affair.

To make comments, continue to PART II: Morality and ethics without absolutes, part II

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