Right and Wrong Thinking about Right and Wrong

I was handed a book today and asked for some comments on it. It is not a new book, but it is a popular level book on ethics written by a popular level writer. It is meant to help people as they wade through the difficulties of moral decision making.

The person who gave me the book has no formal training in philosophy, theology or ethics. But she knew something was amiss with the whole tenor and direction of the volume, and wanted me to help her more clearly identify her misgivings.

So I gave the book a quick look over, and here are my thoughts. Thus this is not a proper book review as such, just a short discussion of ethics, using this volume as a focal point. The author is Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay, and the book is Right and Wrong (Hodder, 2004).

The perceptive reader can tell immediately where Mackay is heading by simply noting the subtitle: How to Decide For Yourself. We can gather from this that for Mackay there are no binding objective moral standards which transcend ourselves, and that we are ultimately left to determine ourselves what is right and what is wrong.

And that is just the course he takes in this book. We are told that moral decision making is subjective, that there are no moral absolutes, and that it “is my personal responsibility to work out what” the right answers are. Moreover, that “right answer for me may be different from the right answer for you”.

Mackay rejects religion as any basis for morality. Indeed, religion should not be concerned with morality but with “spirituality and mysticism,” whatever that means. Morality is simply a by-product of community, of learning how to get along with others.

Thus morality is ultimately decided in a social setting. The community we are a part of helps us to decide on right and wrong. Moreover, we should not seek to judge other people or seek to change them. All we can do is determine the way we respond to how other people act.

These are some of the broad brush principles Mackay lays out in the first half of the book. In the second half he seeks to apply them to various practical ethical dilemmas. He concludes his book with these words: “When it comes to the moral questions … we must each decide for ourselves. . . . Over and over again, we must ask ourselves Is this right? And then, in a spirit of compassion and sensitivity to the well-being of everyone involved in the issue, we must listen carefully to our own answer.”

So what do we have here? Simply put, this is a book proudly promoting moral relativism. Morality is ultimately determined by individuals, or at least individuals in communities. There are no moral absolutes, and we are left on our own to determine what is right and wrong.

There are plenty of versions of moral relativism. For example, cultural relativism is the belief that all cultures are morally equal, and no one culture is better than another. Whether we apply such relativism simply to individuals, to ethnic groups, to nations, or to cultures, the problems are the same. What happens when individuals or cultures disagree?

It seems easy for Mackay: we all sit down together, talk about things, and try to find what is good for everyone. At the end of the day for Mackay, what is right or wrong or true or false is simply a function of pragmatism. That is, if it works – if it helps in getting us to all just get along – then it is right.

He is quite clear about this: “Killing, stealing, cheating, lying and exploiting other people are not wrong because this or that religion says they are; they are wrong because societies can’t function harmoniously unless such actions are discouraged or prohibited.” There you have it: morality is whatever happens to work in terms of keeping societies functioning harmoniously.

But there are of course major problems with this. What if lying or stealing turned out to more effectively achieve this end of the harmonious functioning of society? Then would these things be morally okay? But why even assume that the smooth operation of community is the summum bonum? What if others have a different ultimate good? Then how do we decide which is the one to run with?

Hitler and the Nazis clearly thought that what they were trying to achieve was a very good human end, and would result in real peace and community. One simply had to eliminate all those who stood in the way of such a morally good end.

Under Mackay’s relativism, we really have little way to criticise the Nazis. Different societies have differing ideas of what the social good is. Why should we accept his version of events? Because most people would agree? But since when do mere numbers determine what is right or wrong? The majority of Germans were fully behind Hitler. So was he morally justified in what he was doing because of majority support?

The problem is, as a secularist and a materialist, Mackay has no logical or ontological grounding for moral values or obligations. Why be moral at all, if we are really no better or worse than animals? How can we derive moral obligations from a purely natural world? How do you derive “ought” from “is”?

Of course all Mackay is doing is giving lie to his own non-theistic worldview, and confirming the theistic worldview. He is living on borrowed spiritual capital, in other words. He can rightly talk about right and wrong because he lives in a moral universe, and he is made in the image of a personal moral law giver.

That is why he even can think about morality. Morality makes no sense in the naturalist worldview. But it makes plenty of sense in the theistic worldview. As atheist ethicist Richard Taylor has remarked, “The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God.” Like so many other secularists, Mackay is simply stealing from the theistic worldview as he ruminates about ethics.

His own justification for morality is very thin indeed, and it really helps no one in practical ethical decision making. We are simply left with running with whatever we feel good about. But paedophiles feel quite good about what they are doing, as do arsonists and rapists.

If it is objected that such activities are not very conducive to the community good, one can simply reply by saying that in a dog-eat dog Darwinian world, why even be concerned about the social good? Survival is the only reason we are here, so if murder or arson can help in our struggle for survival, then why not?

Indeed, nature “red in tooth and claw” does not seem to put a premium on social harmony. Whatever helps to perpetuate the species seems to be the only chief concern. So if that means warring against other species, then that is the way things must be.

Consider rape for example – not exactly an activity known for producing social harmony. Yet it may have decidedly helpful evolutionary advantages. As Darwinists Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer argued in their 2001 volume, A Natural History of Rape, rape is “a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage,” just like “the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck.”

Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr has argued that “altruism toward strangers is a behaviour not supported by natural selection.” Yet getting along with others is the very thing that underlies Mackay’s case for ethics. But if nature knows of no such need to merely get along socially, why should we accept this as a moral good worth pursuing?

Atheist Paul Kurtz seems more honest than Mackay when he asks, “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns this ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”

Or as the late Oxford atheist J.L. Mackie noted, “Moral properties … constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”

Thus the more honest secularists admit that on a purely secular, evolutionary scheme of things, morality seems to be a very odd kettle of fish indeed. Yet here Mackay pens a whole book on the subject (totaling nearly 300 pages) in which he offers in just a few sentences his case as to how morality has arisen.

And in a few short pages he dismisses the most persuasive case for objective morality: the existence of God. Given that his foundations are so wobbly, it is not surprising that most of the book is little more than a collection of platitudes and feel-good pop moral philosophy.

It is not a serious work in ethical theory, and given his faulty starting point, it cannot be. Of course countless others have tried to make the case for morality sans God. But given how widely read Mackay’s books are, I trust that a few other reviewers have noticed the book’s major shortcomings. If not, let me be the first to do so.

[1549 words]

13 Replies to “Right and Wrong Thinking about Right and Wrong”

  1. Pity the 13th poor soul struggling to get into a life boat (made for 12) when Hugh Mackay’s in charge.
    Trevor Grace

  2. Most of the commandments dealing with human relations and dealings can at least be understood by the natural law, which is written into our very natures and is knowable. However, the gift of Faith in Christ and in nurturing the gift helps us to see the Divine Maker of all creation and of our very natures.
    Just as the natural law is not a monopoly only given to Christians, so too the athiests and agnostics – some of whom make pronouncements about not requiring God – likewise have no monopoly on determining truth apart from the natural law and stop not discounting or rejecting the perfection of knowing an all loving God and that without Him (Christ) we can do nothing. All gifts and talents are not by chance, not without design. As all communities know, when we recognise our talents in some things and recognise that other people have other talents we do not possess, when we all help one another and build up our pool of talents we have a better community.
    So through the gift of Faith in Christ, we go to the highest level of recognising, thanking and praising the Lord who is the author of all talents given to all human persons.
    Michael Webb

  3. I found the most ironic thing he said to be.

    “When it comes to the moral questions … we must each decide for ourselves. . . . Over and over again, we must ask ourselves Is this right? And then, in a spirit of compassion and sensitivity to the well-being of everyone involved in the issue, we must listen carefully to our own answer.”

    This guy is an idiot. He first says, “we make up our own minds about right and wrong” and then goes on to assert a binding moral principle that should influence what we decide.

    How much learning do you need to be this stupid?

    Jason Rennie

  4. “Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr has argued that “altruism toward strangers is a behaviour not supported by natural selection.”

    I have read Mayr the evolutionist. Propositions in evolutionary thought are supposed to be factual, empirical. They have no normative sense. So he has no logical business using the concept of natural selection, a theoretical scientific abstraction resting on empirical propositions, as a touchstone for deciding the ethical question as to whether or not we should be altruistic to strangers. But what do you expect in a secular culture that happily laps up advice on how to sexually behave from a scientific expert on wasps (Kinsey)?

    When confronted with moral problems we should be wary of taking advice from scientists. They are, after all, the numerous folk who spent trillions of rubles and dollars making tens of thousands of nuclear weapons which no rational, moral being would want to use. If you put your mind to it, you could make a case that scientists as a group have been more depraved than Hollywood celebrities whose morally stunted minds never venture much past sexual licence and cocaine. Interestingly, the popular media in the West typically portray Christian clergy, a relatively blameless lot, as the baddies. Obviously the age of science is an age of objectivity.

    On the matter of the relationship between Materialism/Naturalism and morality, as a fairly well-read philosophy student I have never read a statement of that position from which one could logically derive any moral proposition at all. So do the good citizens of Materialism make it up? Of course they do, from Egoism to Emotivism to Utilitarianism, from Rand to Stevenson to Singer, they invent moral ideas that don’t work. Even superstitious mediaeval monks had better quality-assurance standards than these Moderns.

    John Snowden

  5. John Snowden,

    Surely you actually meant “Obviously the age of science is not an age of objectivity.”?

  6. Morality requires judgment.
    Judgment requires a standard to compare with.
    If the standard is ourself, then nothing is, or can be, ever wrong. This leads to ‘a spirit of compassion and sensitivity’ which deducts abortion is compassionate (not to mention a choice issue rather than a moral issue) for the mother.

    Without God, there is no punishment. Without punishment, there is no law. Without law, there is no order. Without order, there is only chaos. Right becomes wrong. Wrong become right. Good become bad and bad become good. Science becomes religion while religion becomes politics (while politics has always been a science) OK.. I think I’m running aground now…

    In the end, there is no justice, mercy, recourse, or law to guide (govern) societal behavior. Everything and anything is OK. More than vaguely like what we do have today.

    Jeff MIskin

  7. Dear Bill,
    I have just emerged from the madhouse called England. I entered the madhouse by reading “The Daily Mail” articles adjacent to their article on schools rewarding the bad behaviour of students.

    What has helped me cheer up was reading Jason Rennie’s letter on Hugh Mackay. The last line produced a hearty belly laugh, which is good for the soul.

    I suppose I’m trying to say, amongst other things, is that even in desperate times, there is, on our part, the need for humour, the need to laugh, even concerning the very things that oppress us.

    I am not talking about the black, fatalistic, Russian humour that seemed so prevalent under communist tyrants (and now the politically correct ones), but something higher than that, that recognises with delight the absurdity of evil, and is also conscious of the knowlege that Jesus is not only ultimately the Victor, but also our Deliverer now. All therefore, is not lost.

    I do enjoy your articles Bill, and I also enjoy the depth of thought and Godliness evident in most of your correspondents. I, and every C

    Robert Greggery

  8. Mr Muehlenberg

    I have read and enjoyed your contributions to Quadrant. And now I have stumbled across your website. Please keep up the good work!

    Dennis Ryan

  9. Dear Bill,
    I must apologise for the unfinished e-mail you received from me. The computer began “talking back to me” and endeavouring to correct things, I lost the lot and in not deliberately sending it, didn’t think that it would get to you.

    Appreciate the further comments on the issue of “Pop” in Sweden. To see the penetration of idealogical incoherence by Holy Spirit illuminated minds is a pleasure. How we need, it seems, not the just the fellowship of kindred spirits, but the input from, and the observation of Godly minds that actually think. So for those who write and share (including you, Bill) Godly insight, thank you. In a world of unthinking minds, people “who by reason of use, have their senses (mental faculty) exercised to discern both good and evil”, are like an oasis in the desert.
    Yours sincerely,
    Robert Greggery.

  10. Moral relativism seems to need a homogenised humanity to work. Is that what they’re working toward?
    Anthony McGregor

  11. Appealing to religion does not solve the problem of relativism because the question then becomes “Whose religion?” The Quran and Sharia say it is a duty to spread Islam and Sharia worldwide by whatever means and if nonbelievers are killed in the process, that is fine. (See the discussion of Cruel and Usual Punishment on 24.6.09 for more.) Do we accept Islam’s view of what is right? How do we deicide who gets to answer this without introducing moral relativism?
    Ed Bender

  12. Thanks Ed

    You raise some fair, and important, points. My article was more interested in showing the shortcomings of moral relativism, and seeking to make the case that one really needs objective, transcendent moral values to avoid the problems inherent in moral relativism.

    But then, yes, we need to move further in that direction. Assuming that a personal, moral law giver is the most plausible explanation of why there are moral absolutes, and why we have binding moral obligations, then the next question is to discover what that God is like.

    Since we do not have moral obligations to the non-personal, and since morality really only seems to make sense when we speak of persons, then we can rule out religions which feature impersonality as ultimate reality, as much of Eastern thought does.

    The best candidates would then be the monotheistic religions which posit a personal, infinite God. That narrows things down to three main religions. Then it becomes a matter of comparing the truth claims of these religions, and seeing if one is more likely to be true than another.

    Clearly Islam and Christianity, for example, are mutually exclusive as to their core claims, so both cannot be true. If Christianity happens to be true, then Islam cannot be. So here the religious seeker must look at the religious alternatives, check out their truth claims, and decide which is most coherent, congruent, and so on.

    But that is another whole discussion, of which plenty of material is available if you wish to take things further. For what it is worth, I of course support the Christian worldview, and I would simply ask you to compare the life of Muhammad with the life of Jesus. That is a very good way to notice major differences, and to help you in deciding if one belief system is superior to another.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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