Good on What Grounds?

On which foundation does our sense of right and wrong rest? How does the choice of that foundation impact public government? And on a personal level, does Christianity automatically confer moral superiority to those who adopt it?

Over the last three weeks, we’ve explored tools to tell apart facts from opinions, like falsifiability and Hume’s Law, in order to have better conversations. And looking back on our last episode, it’s clear to me that this becomes particularly difficult when we’re dealing with matters of morality, of determining what’s right and what’s wrong.

The Grounding Problem of Ethics

I happen to believe that having a fixed, stable and universally accepted moral standard would be ideal. But every moral assertion invites a question: “Why?” On what basis do we consider moral judgments valid? In ethics, which is the branch of philosophy that studies morality, this is known as the grounding problem: the search for a solid foundation to impart objectivity and stability to our moral standards.

The grounding problem has two important implications. On a societal level, many crucial issues are intrinsically moral, and polarization when we debate these issues is harmful to society. On a personal level, these discussions can turn unpleasant in a hurry. If I am morally right, am I better than, or superior to, others that don’t agree with me? That’s a conclusion I don’t think I ever want to arrive at.

Is Meta-Ethics Solid Ground?

So, where would we look at potential solutions to these issues? From its definition, ethics would be the branch of philosophy to explore. However, when you look at ethics, you realize that it simply highlights the stubbornness of the grounding problem. The most abstract branch of ethics is meta-ethics, which is concerned with questions like, “What is goodness?” And more generally with the source and nature of ethical knowledge. Its lines of debate resemble those around truth and reality, where some philosophers affirm that an objective and absolute reality exists and can be known, and others affirm that such a reality doesn’t exist, or that we can’t objectively know it.

When it comes to meta-ethics, in a similar way, moral realism thinks of moral facts as objective truths. They can be unique and absolute, so on a given topic there’s only one definition of what’s right, and it applies all the time. Or the truth can be diverse; there may be multiple correct answers to a given moral dilemma, or they may be relative to culture, perception, and the times. By contrast, moral anti-realism challenges the idea that we can access objective moral knowledge, or that such knowledge even exists. In this view, moral statements convey emotion instead of authority. Saying that “murder is wrong” essentially means, “Boo to murder!,” or, “Murder sucks!”

What About Normative Ethics?

Meta-ethics is deep and elegantly structured, but it simply highlights the grounding problem; it doesn’t solve it. If we go one step down, we find normative ethics, the branch where we define ethical theories or frameworks to answer the question, “How should I behave?” We can gauge if our actions are right or wrong based on character, duty or consequences, which drive the three broad classes of normative ethical theories. All of them sound true and reasonable, but all of them have issues and challenges.

Virtue ethics focuses on character. Through reason, observation and experience, we develop virtues that shape our character, so that we end up choosing to do the right thing almost subconsciously or effortlessly. But… What are these virtues? For classical Greek philosophers, virtues are a balance between deficiency and excess vices. Cowardice, for instance, is a vice of deficiency. Recklessness would be a vice of excess. And courage would be the balanced virtue between them. However, coming up with a universally accepted list of virtues is difficult in a modern multicultural society. The classical process to develop virtues seems to be restricted to intellectual people. And there’s something weird about an ethical theory that relegates actions themselves to a secondary role.

Option number two, called deontology, focuses on duty or rules. It defines a role-based or a rule-based moral system, which is where religions typically fall. Two well-known theistic deontologies are the divine command theory and the natural law theory. An obvious obstacle to these deontologies is atheism. How can you take rules coming from God to be absolute if you don’t believe in God in the first place? However, there are non-theistic deontologies as well, and perhaps the best known one is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which has been formulated in various ways by Kant himself, and here’s perhaps the most famous one:

“Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”

In other words, do that which you would wish everyone did, and refrain from that which you wish everyone refrained from. Simple, nice, and no God needed, right? But that didn’t stop French philosopher Benjamin Constant from poking holes in the categorical imperative. If a known murderer were to ask you the whereabouts of their next victim, would it be morally right to lie? Kant’s answer? “No.”

The third class of normative ethical theories looks at the consequences of our actions to know if they are right or wrong. Unsurprisingly, this is known as consequentialism. One well-known consequential ethical theory is utilitarianism, which seeks to maximize happiness and well-being, or “utility”, for as many actors as possible. Again, this sounds good, doesn’t it? But it quickly runs into trouble. How do we measure utility? And how do we aggregate it? In other words how, do we trade off the happiness and well-being of an abstract majority against the concrete needs and desires of each individual? And more specifically, what happens when maximizing utility involves harming or sacrificing one’s own happiness and well-being, or that of a minority?

Most normative ethical theories make sense at some level, but all stumble on the grounding problem. And then the last level of ethics helps even less. Applied ethics is about what are we allowed or obligated to do in specific circumstances. Should I have another piece of chocolate after I record this? The prospect of finding a solution to the grounding problem here is weaker than my willpower and softer than my waistline.

Grounding and Governing

Philosophical ethics are beautiful and fascinating to study. However, they merely state the grounding problem; they can’t solve it. Going back to our opening issue, how does the grounding problem affect societal governance? One implication, which I find particularly important, is our understanding of human rights. Are these rights universal and absolute? If so, where do we get them from? And what will be the role of governments in this case? It seems safe to say that it will be to preserve and protect those rights. But what if there are no foundational and absolute rights? Are governments then in charge of creating or specifying them?

Even more interestingly, in countries like Canada, where fundamental rights are enshrined in the Constitution. How do governments interpret and defend those rights over time? Is it legitimate to reinterpret the Constitution and “discover” new rights in it? I find this truly fascinating, and I hope to explore it in very practical and specific terms in upcoming episodes.

Getting Personal: the Moral Argument

Coming down from society at large to an individual or personal level, Christianity offers an attractive solution to the grounding problem. But this could come across as expanding the issue. The ethics grounding problem is about finding a foundation for our moral beliefs. Am I now expanding that into finding a foundation for an even larger set of beliefs? As I’ve mentioned here before, finding that broader rational foundation is the goal of Christian apologetics. And one of its most intriguing ideas is to take a specific, small piece of ethics as an argument for the existence of God. You can combine this with several other arguments, and then, once you have established God’s existence beyond reasonable doubt, you can circle back and use the Bible as a well-grounded, all-encompassing moral standard.

Let’s unpack this. This idea is known as the Moral Argument. And a somewhat formal way to express it goes like this: Every law has a lawgiver. There exists a universal moral law. Therefore, there exists a Moral Lawgiver. Think of one thing that you would consider universally right or universally wrong. A single data point that would support moral realism. I can think of murder. Not killing – murder. I can’t think of any society, any culture, in any place or time – any person, for that matter, that wouldn’t naturally consider murder absolutely wrong. So, if we have a single universal moral judgment, we can consider it a universal moral law. Even if it’s tiny. Even if there’s disagreement on many other things. And if there is a universal moral law, it means that it is somehow given, imprinted, or “written” in every person’s heart or will or conscience. And that would be evidence of a universal Moral Lawgiver; there cannot be a law without a legislator.

This is the Moral Argument. And if you combine it with other arguments, some of more of a scientific nature, like the Cosmological Argument or the Teleological Argument, and some from evidence-based analysis of Scripture and the historical life of Jesus, you can develop a rational basis for Christianity as knowledge, understood in the classic sense of justified true belief. Then, if you make the conscious decision to adopt this as your worldview, you are now living by faith, and among many other benefits, you have found your moral grounding.

As a sidebar, I find that the biblical concept of “saving faith” is poorly understood in modern society. “To live by faith” is usually understood as, “to live by blindly accepting unsubstantiated assertions about a deity for no better reasons than emotional wellness or family cohesion or the like.” But that is not what we mean by saving faith. Apologetics can give you the intellectual grounding for the knowledge of the Gospel, if you need it. From there, you have to take this knowledge and not just acknowledge and affirm it, but place your trust in it and shape your life after it. You have to say, “I know this. I believe it to be true. But now I am going to make a conscious decision to live after it.” And that is the faith decision. It’s a volitional act – an act of the will, not of the brain. That’s the sidebar.

Are Christians Better People?

Let’s see where we’re at now. We have outlined the ways in which ethics struggles with the grounding problem, and one particular way in which this complicates society and government, which is human rights. We have seen how Christianity solves the grounding problem on a personal level. Let’s now revisit the personal implications of the grounding problem. If Christianity offers a morally solid grounding, does that automatically make Christians morally superior, or non-Christians morally deficient or inferior? I think the answer is “No”, and to explain why I need to dispel two common misconceptions about the foundational Christian concepts of salvation and sanctification.

At the core of Christianity is the message of the Gospel, the “good news”. Because of sin – because of immorality – we are all separated from God, and we are all unable to draw near to Him on our own volition. We are all in need of a deliverance and salvation. Doesn’t sound like good news, right? Here’s the good news: We all need that deliverance and salvation, and only He can provide it. He has done so through Jesus, and accepting this free gift leads to our best possible life. That’s the Gospel in a nutshell.

And I want to highlight one thing. The fact that we – all of us – are unable to draw near God, to approach Him in order to even attempt to make reparations for our spiritual condition. However, this does not mean that we are completely unable to do what’s biblically right in at least some circumstances. Non-Christians can behave morally. They are able to uphold at least some biblical moral principles. They may not lie. They may not cheat. They may not have substance addiction issues. None of these things are precluded by the biblically defined “fallen” condition. What some Christian traditions call “total depravity” doesn’t mean that non-Christians are wholly unable to behave morally. It simply means that no human is able to initiate a restorative approach to God for spiritual deliverance.

Here’s the second misconception. Once a person is saved, they are called “holy”. That’s another source of contention between Christians and non-Christians. How can merely placing your faith in the Gospel make you holy? Does that mean you no longer sin? Does that mean all your actions are morally right all of a sudden – all your attitudes? Is any Christian inherently morally better than any non-Christian? And again, this stems from a deficient definition, an incorrect understanding of holiness.

Here’s an illustration I find helpful. I’ve never held public office. Whatever good I’ve brought to my community has been on a volunteer basis. Now, suppose I decided to run for city council. Stretch your imagination even further and suppose that I win. On the day I’m sworn in as a city councillor, I’ve done absolutely nothing for my city or neighbourhood in an official capacity. However, since that very day, technically I’m a public servant. That’s another term for a government official. I can put that in my business card, though I really haven’t served the public from my office in any material way yet. However, if I am to become a good councillor, eventually I will have earned the title of public servant, not merely from a definition, title or position, but from the sum total of my deeds in office. It’s like when people say, X was a good Prime Minister, but Y was a true statesman. There’s a label that comes with the title, but there’s a different one, or a different sense of the same label, that comes from your deeds.

So with sanctification too. Theologians like to say that Christians being holy has two aspects. One is positional. The moment you are saved, you are set apart, or set aside, for God. Which is in fact the meaning of one of the words translated as “holy” in the Bible. It’s simply being set aside or apart. So that’s positional sanctification. The other aspect is conditional. It speaks to your condition, the condition of your heart, how do you actually think and behave. And just like public service, it is a process. You go beyond the title, beyond the position, and as your character and sense of duty evolves – you could say that as you embrace the Christian virtues and deontology – you become more holy in essence and in deeds.

If you’re a believer, I hope this helps you explain this to those around you. And if you are merely curious about Christianity, I hope you find it helpful too.

Let’s recap what we’ve covered. Every moral assertion invites a challenge. This is the grounding problem of ethics. On a personal level, apologetics provides an intellectual foundation for Christianity. Faith is the means to embrace it as a worldview, which solves the grounding problem for the person. This doesn’t imply that the person is morally superior to others who won’t choose this worldview. And since Christianity is chiefly a personal worldview and shouldn’t seek to enforce a theocracy, this doesn’t solve the implications of the grounding problem on government and society. Those implications, on topics like human rights, remain worthy of more reflection.

I hope you find this interesting. I’d love to know what you think. Please reach out over social media or email. Send us a written note, or even a voice note if you’d like to be featured in an upcoming episode. Thanks in advance!

Published: February 22, 2021