In evaluating ethical systems we can be lost in a maze of systems, details, and terminology. Such arguments lead nowhere, shed little light on the subject, and polarize people into opposing camps. A helpful way to sort through this subject is to ask a basic question which will make clear the assumptions underlying disparate views. That question could be stated this way: “What makes an action right or wrong in this system?”

Cultural Relativism

When the question is asked “What makes an action right or wrong?” one category of answer will be: “Culture,” that is, culture determines what is right or wrong whatever a cultural group approves of is right; whatever the group disapproves of is wrong.

This is the ethical position known as cultural relativism. There are several key ingredients that make up this view.

  1. Culture and Custom — In cultural relativism, moral standards are the result of group history and common experience which over time become enculturated ways of belief and action, i.e., customs, mores, and folkways.
  2. Change — Since group experiences change with the passage of time, then naturally customs will change as a reflection of these new experiences.
  3. Relativity — What is right (or normal) in one culture may be wrong (or abnormal) in another, since different forms of morality evolved in different places as a result of different experiences cultural adaptation. Thus, there are no fixed principles or absolutes.
  4. Conscience — Cultural relativism holds that our consciences are the result of the childhood training and pressures from our group or tribe. What our consciences tell us is what our culture has trained them to tell us.

An Evaluation of Cultural Relativism
In trying to evaluate cultural relativism some things must be clear. First, it is quite obvious that there are many things we can all learn from other cultures. No culture has a monopoly on wisdom, virtue, or rationality. Second, just because we may do things a certain way doesn’t mean that our way is the best or the most moral way to do those things.

Having said this, however, there are some problems cultural relativism faces. First, it is not enough to say that morals originated in the world and that they are constantly evolving. Cultural relativism needs to answer how value originated out of non-value; that is, how did the first value arise?

Second, cultural relativism seems to hold as a cardinal value that values change. But, if the value that values change is itself unchanging, then this theory claims as an unchanging value that all values change and progress. Thus, the position contradicts itself.

Third, if there are no absolute values that exist transculturally or externally to the group, how are different cultures to get along when values collide? How are they to handle such conflicts?

Fourth, where does the group, tribe, or culture get its authority? Why can’t individuals assume that authority?

Fifth, most of our heroes and heroines have been those who courageously went against culture and justified their actions by appealing to a higher standard. According to cultural relativism such people are always morally wrong.

Finally, cultural relativism assumes human physical evolution as well as social evolution.

Situational Ethics

When the question “What makes an action right or wrong?” is asked another answer one hears is that “love” is the determining principle. This is the basis of situational ethics, a system made popular by Joseph Fletcher

Three Types of Ethical Systems
Fletcher believes there are three approaches to making moral decisions. The first he calls legalism which he defines as “rules and regulations.” He rejects this system as being more concerned with law than with people.

Fletcher states that the second approach to morality is antinomianism, meaning “against law.” Antinomians reject all rules, laws, and principles regarding morality and see no basis for determining whether acts are moral or immoral. Fletcher rejects antinomianism because it refuses to take seriously the demands of love.

The third option, Fletcher’s personal choice, is situationism. It is often called situation ethics or the new morality. It argues for a middle road between legalism and antinomianism.

The Three Premises of Situationism
The first premise of situationism is that love is the sole arbiter of morality in any situation. This means that under certain conditions doing the loving thing may require us to break the rules or commandments of morality because they are only contingent, whereas love is the unchanging absolute.

Second, situationism holds that love should be defined in utilitarian terms. This means that to be truly loving an action should be judged by whether or not it contributes to the greatest good for the greatest number.

Third, situationism is forced to accept the view that the end justifies the means. The problem here is that the end in mind is often one chosen arbitrarily by the person who acts. This posture, of course, opens to the door for all sorts of brutality and abuse.

Criticisms of Situationism
The ethical system known as situationism is subject to several serious criticisms. The first is that love, as defined by Fletcher, is of no help whatsoever in making moral decisions because everyone may have a different opinion of what is loving or unloving in a given situation. The truth is, love without ethical content is meaningless, and without rules (or principles, or commandments), love is incapable of giving any guidance on making moral decisions. In fact, it isn’t love that guides many of the decisions in Fletcher’s system at all, but preconceived personal preferences.

A second criticism of situationism is that in a moral system based on the consequences of our actions, we have to be able to predict those consequences ahead of time if we want to know whether or not we are acting morally.

We may start out with the best of intentions, but if our prediction of the desired consequences does not come true, we have committed an immoral act in spite of our good intentions. And now we begin to see the enormity of the situationist’s dilemma: (1) calculating the myriad possible outcomes of each and every ethical possibility before making the needed decisions, and then (2) choosing the very best course of action. Such calculations are impossible and thus render the moral life impossible.

Naturalism and Behaviorism

When the question, “What makes an action right or wrong?” is posed to the naturalist, the answer comes back “Whatever is, is right.” To see how we came to this point, we must review how naturalism and behaviorism arose in reaction to dualism.

Dualism’s Difficulties
the philosophy of dualism holds that there are two principal substances in the universe: matter and mind (or soul or spirit). These two substances correspond to the material and immaterial aspects of human life and reality. The belief goes back all the way to Plato and is compatible with the Christian worldview.

When Descartes came along, he ascribed to the concept that matter and mind (or spirit) are different, but he eventually came to assert that matter and mind (spirit) are so diverse that they have no common properties and cannot influence each other. This led to what is known as the mind-brain problem: namely, if mind and body (matter) cannot interact, how do we explain the fact that the mind appears to affect the body and the body appears to affect the mind?

Naturalism Catches On
While philosophers and scientists pondered this dilemma, the growing implications of Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity served to further complicate things. Since observation and mathematical calculations revealed that all bodies (including human bodies) are subject to the same seemingly unbreakable laws, the existence of the mind (or spirit) became increasingly difficult to maintain. Consequently, some philosophers thought it much simpler to believe in only one substance in the universe.

Thus dualism (meaning two substances: matter and mind) lost popular appeal and naturalism or materialism (meaning one substance: matter) gained the ascendancy. If there is only one substance in the universe, then all particles of matter are interrelated in a causal sequence and the universe, human beings included, must be a giant computer controlled by blind physical forces. Thus, according to naturalism, humans are mere cogs in the machine. We cannot act upon the world, rather the world acts upon us. In such a world the mind is just the by-product of the brain as the babbling is the by- product of the brook. Freedom, therefore, is an illusion, and strictly speaking there is no morality at all.

Behaviorism grew out of naturalism and is an extension of it. One form of behaviorism is called sociobiology, a theory that morality is rooted in our genes. That is, all forms of life exist solely to serve the purposes of the DNA code. According to sociobiology, the ultimate rationale for one’s existence and behavior is the preservation or advancement of the person’s genes.

The more well-known form of behaviorism comes from B. F. Skinner. He stated that we are what we are largely because of our environmental training or conditioning.

Evaluating Behaviorism
When we remember that both forms behaviorism are built on naturalism, the implications are the same: man is a machine; all our actions are the product of forces beyond our control, and we possess no special dignity in the universe. Thus, strictly speaking, behaviorism does not propose a theory of morality, but it results in antimorality.

Emotive Ethics

In modern ethical thought an unusual answer has been given to the question, “What makes an action right or wrong?” The answer? “Nothing is literally right or wrong: these terms are simply the expression of emotion and as such are neither true nor false.” This is answer of emotive ethics.

This theory of morality originated with David Hume and his belief that knowledge is limited to sense impressions. Beyond sense impressions, our knowledge is unfounded. What difference does such a theory make? It renders intelligent talk about God, the soul, or morality impossible, because real knowledge is limited to phenomena observable by our physical senses. Discussion of phenomena not observable by our physical senses is considered to belong to the realm of metaphysics, a realm that cannot be touched, felt, seen, heard, nor smelled.

What can we know if our knowledge is limited to our sense experience? Hume claimed that all we can know are matters of fact. We can only make factually verifiable statements such as, “That crow is black” or “The book is on the table.” On the other hand, we cannot, in this system, make a statement like, “Stealing is wrong.” We cannot even say, “Murder is wrong.” Why? Because wrong is not a factual observation and cannot be verified empirically. In fact, it is a meaningless statement, and merely an expression of personal preference. We are really just saying “I don’t like stealing,” and “I dislike murder.” It is on the order of saying, “I like tomatoes.” Someone else can say, “I dislike tomatoes,” without factual contradiction because it’s just the statement of two different personal preferences.

In summary, emotive ethics holds that it is impossible to have a rational discussion about morals. This is because ethical statements cannot be analyzed since they do not meet the criteria of scientific statements; that is, they are not observation statements. Thus, in emotivism, all actions are morally neutral.

An Evaluation of Emotivism
Upon reflection, emotivism is less devastating than it first appears. For starters, emotivists can never say that another ethical system is wrong; they can only volunteer that they don’t like or prefer other systems. Likewise, they can’t say that we ought to accept their views. Emotivism, therefore, by its own principles, allows us to reject this theory.

Second, unless emotivists provide some rational criterion for making moral choices, they must allow moral anarchy. Their only objection to terrorist morality would be, “I don’t like it.” The emotivist, then, is left with no reason to judge or oppose a dictator or terrorist.

Third, the thesis of emotivism that rational discussion of morality is impossible is false. Their assumption that the only meaningful utterances are statements of factual observation is one of emotivism’s basic philosophical flaws, and it cannot be factually verified! It does not fit into the “crow is black” model proposed by emotivists themselves. Morality is open to rational discussion. Emotivism’s arbitrary limitations on language cannot be maintained.

Traditional Absolutes

Earlier we considered four systems of ethics cultural relativism, situationism, behaviorism, and emotivism that in one way or another all self-destruct, ultimately destroyed by their own arbitrarily chosen principles.

Now we must reexamine traditional ethics: the Judeo-Christian ethic based on revelation, i.e., the Bible.

  1. God’s moral revelation is based on His nature.

God is separate from everything that exists, is free of all imperfections and limitations, and is His own standard. No moral rule exists outside of Him. Holiness, goodness, and truthfulness indeed all biblical morality are rooted in the nature of God.

  1. Man is a unique moral being.

The biblical picture of mankind differs strikingly from the humanistic versions of mankind. We alone were created in the image of God and possess at least four qualities that distinguish us from the animals: personality, ability to reason, moral nature, and spiritual nature.

  1. God’s moral principles have historical continuity.

If God’s moral revelation is rooted in His nature, it is clear that those moral principles will transcend time. Although specific commands may change from one era to another, the principles remain constant.

  1. God’s moral revelation has intrinsic value.

God’s standards, like the laws of nature, have built-in consequences. Just as we have to deal with the laws of nature, we will eventually have to deal with the consequences of violating God’s standards unless we put our faith in Christ who took on the consequences of our disobedience by His death on the cross.

  1. Law and love are harmonized in the Scriptures.

In the biblical revelation, love and law are not mutually exclusive, but are harmonized. Love fulfills the law. If we love God, we will want to keep His commandments.

  1. Obedience to God’s Law is not legalism.

The Bible speaks strongly against legalism since biblical morality is much more than external obedience to a moral code. No one can live up to God’s standards without the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, because we are judged by our attitudes and motivations not just external performance.

  1. God’s moral revelation was given for our benefit.

Though in the short run it may sometimes appear that biblical moral standards are too restrictive, we can be sure that such injunctions are for our benefit because of His love for us. After all, in the long run God knows best since because of His omniscience, He can calculate all the consequences.

  1. Exceptions to God’s revelation must have biblical sanction.

Biblical morality is not based on calculating the consequences since only God can do that perfectly. Our responsibility is to obey; God’s responsibility is to take care of the consequences.

  1. “Ought” does not always imply “can.”

According to the Bible, we do not, and cannot, live up to what we know to be right. Yet God is not mocking us because He has left us a way out. He made provision for our weaknesses and failures because Christ’s death on the cross in our behalf satisfied His moral requirements.

What makes an act right or wrong then? The answer is: the revealed will of God found in the Bible.

Louis D. Whitworth is the former senior editor at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of Northeast Louisiana University (B.A., Sociology and English, and M.A., English) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M., Pastoral Theology). Prior to joining Probe, Lou taught English literature and composition at the college level and served with Campus Crusade for Christ in the Military Ministry as well as the Singles Ministry. He is the author of the Probe booklet, Literature Under the Microscope: A Christian Look at Reading.

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