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.