How Do We Decide What is Right and What is Wrong?

good and evil

Regardless of varying religious beliefs or the lack thereof, we live in a world of moral values.  There is a sense of moral obligation that we all possess which compels us to label some behaviors as good and others as evil.  I’m not arguing in this post that this morality is universal or objective or God given.  I’m simply establishing that we virtually all feel it.

Our sense of morality affects us individually to guide our behaviors, for instance, compelling us to tell the cashier when they give us too much change.  It affects us as a society to create laws against everything from arson to false advertising to murder.  It even prompts militant atheists to cry out against the existence of a God that would allow the things that they see around them which are morally objectionable.

My question today is not why we have this moral sense.  Some say it came to us through millions of years of evolution because it fostered the safety of the individual in the context of the group.  Some say it was given to us by God or is determined by His nature.  Some say it is actually all an illusion, completely constructed in human minds.  There is plenty to say on these matters, but my question is more universal and more practical.

How do we determine what is right and wrong?  This is an extremely practical question because we will all be required to make countless personal decisions, to formulate numerous opinions, and as members of society to collectively create laws and enforce them, all in light of moral principles.

At this point we could all immediately begin disagreeing about how to determine morality.  One could claim that we should get it from the words of the Bible.  Another that we must all decide for ourselves and can make no universal pronouncements.  Another that a set of principles such as love or tolerance should be systematically applied to human behavior.

But I’d like to zero in on the nature of our disagreement for a moment and see if I can’t give a general answer that we can all agree on: morality is determined by purpose.  One of my favorite speakers, Dr. Ravi Zacharias identifies this core principal of morality in many of his talks.  That which violates the ultimate purpose of a thing is morally wrong.

So if men are meant to live in harmony, if they are intended to live in freedom, if the goal of their existence is to live in joy and peace, then violating these purposes is morally wrong.

The reason why I think we can at least all agree on this principle is because it allows either God or man to do the purposing or intending or goal setting.  It simply reveals the inextricable link between purpose and morality.  The desired end of our existence determines how we ought to live.

This is where we must part ways.  If we differ in our opinions of our purpose, we will differ in our opinions on morality.

For those who do not believe in the supernatural, any ultimate purpose is an illusion.  Our lives have personal purpose and meaning, but objectively speaking these purposes are meaningless.  It follows that for atheists, morality simply must be boiled down to a matter of opinion, chance, or personal preservation.  There is no universal morality if we do not all have the same purpose.

It should not be surprising, then, when great minds attempt to systematically derive a universal morality from materialism and fail.

Now let me take you a step further down this road.  If morals are literally a matter of opinion with no higher authority to call upon because there is no ultimate purpose in the universe, then majority opinion goes.  Or, in a less democratic system, the strongest and bravest prevail in establishing their own wills.

The believer, on the other hand, believes in a supernaturally determined universal purpose, and thus he can honestly appeal to this universal purpose in order to determine universal moral principles.

Two closing observations.  1) For the atheist, there are no moral authorities more final than personal opinion and personal power.  2) The moral argument against God is self-defeating.  When an atheist claims that there is no God because of the evil in the world, he is by necessity sharing an opinion, not a proof.

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2 thoughts on “How Do We Decide What is Right and What is Wrong?

  1. Good Christians do good because they themselves are good, whilst cherry picking the more pleasant parts of the bible. Have you ever read the bible out of curiosity? I doubt you have ever witnessed anyone obey the wishes of Jesus when in Luke 19:27 ordered those who did not want him as their leader to be killed. We know what is right or wrong by simply analysing the effects certain situations have on individuals. Would you do something to an individual that you know would bring great suffering, simply because someone above you ordered it?

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    • Thanks for the feedback!

      I can’t speak for everyone who wears the name of Christian, but I know from personal experience that I don’t always do the right thing simply because “I’m a good person.” Often I do the right thing because it is necessary in the short term to make a sacrifice so that I may achieve the purpose that God has given me in the long term.

      I have read through the entire Bible several times actually. It can be read through in a year by devoting about 15 minutes a day.

      Rather than cherry picking the Bible, I go for a systematic, holistic approach. I would encourage you to do likewise. The verse you cite is a perfect example. Luke 19:11-27 contains a parable. A parable is not a true story and is not to be taken literally. “Parable” comes from the same root as the mathematical term “parabola” and indicates that the story has two meanings: the one present in the text, and the true meaning that the story symbolizes. This parable, like most, is easy to understand with even a basic knowledge of Christian theology. Verse 27 occurs after the king has returned and called his servants in to speak with him, this is clearly symbolic of the final judgment that will occur when Jesus returns.

      Someone would need a very misguided interpretation of the text indeed to think that it was a command for Christians to kill those who don’t respect Jesus. It is rather a portrayal of what will occur on judgment day.

      Jesus actually taught that His followers should not fight on His behalf (John 18:36). He rebuked Peter for cutting off the ear of one of His enemies (John 18:10-11). He also rebukes James and John for wanting to call down fire from heaven on those who rejected Him (Luke 9:54-56). In His final act of pacifism He actually gave Himself up to be crucified and prayed that God would forgive His executors (Luke 23:24).

      “The effects that certain situations have on individuals” are meaningless unless there is a certain purpose that they are meant to achieve. That was the point of the article.

      To answer your question, I would certainly not bring great suffering to someone simply because someone above me ordered it. There would need to be a better rationale.

      Keep searching and thinking!

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