Moral Standards or Consensus?
The Origins of Right and Wrong
The issue of morality is a tricky one when people begin to discuss community standards. Whose standards will be adopted and codified into law? Why should the morality of one group be preferred over another? Why shouldn't one individual's opinion be considered just as valid as that of others?
One person may say, "I live by the Golden Rule: Do to others what you want done for you." Another says, "Anything goes so long as it doesn't hurt anyone else." Still another puts it like this, "The only one I have to please is myself." All of these are definite standards for making ethical decisions and all of them affect other people. But where does true morality come from?
In North American society, the current approach is that morality is defined and decided by majority rule. This idea sounds eminently reasonable to our democratic way of thinking. Yet, thinking a bit deeper brings up some troubling problems with the idea of morality by majority consensus. Where did the majority get their views? Who are the shapers behind that public opinion? Why should the views of the morality-shapers be allowed to dominate the minds of so many? In other words, what guarantee is there that the moral opinions of the masses are right or good?
Consider Germany in the 1930s. The Nazi Party was steadily gaining power. It controlled the press, the educational establishment and even many of the churches. Nazi propaganda took advantage of certain ideas and feelings already shared by many Germans, and cleverly shaped those notions into the kind of public opinion it desired. As a result, the world was torn apart and millions died, including six million Jews. Yet, if we agree that morality should be decided by public opinion, we have little room to criticize the morals of Nazi Germany. Their consensus was just different than ours, that's all.
Some will point out that we aren't like those terrible Nazis or the German people they duped. Really? The moral standards of North Americans as just as subject to shaping by the media, government and education as any other culture in history. Others will point out that we are different because we value tolerance. The truth is that it really depends upon which side of the current notions of tolerance you fall on. There are a sizable group of people in our culture right now who would claim that intolerance, not tolerance, rules the day. North American society may be tolerant of some people and beliefs, but certainly not all. It just depends on who is in and who is out of power at the time.
Another problem with morality by consensus is that it is subject to constant change. Like a ship with no compass and no chart, a society which has no external moral standards is directionless. External principles are essential both to individuals and to cultures simply because they provide a necessary corrective when standards become out of sync with reality.
So what is the alternative? Let me put it plainly: there is a God. He created the Cosmos. He built into his creation certain moral laws based upon his own nature, by which people should live. The truth is that right and wrong, good and evil, exist independently of what people may think about them. Thomas Jefferson referred to this in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote about, "..certain inalienable rights endowed by our Creator."
In the final analysis, workable moral standards are only possible when they are based on a source external to the changing whims of the masses or of those who generate public opinion. That external source is God. He is both truly good and truly wise. He alone is impartial, favoring no one. To follow his standards, which Jews and Christians believe are given in the Bible, is to have both a compass and an anchor. In contrast, morality based on the ever-changing opinions of some manufactured majority consensus is biased, arbitrary and chaotic. It seems that we are not far from this in our own times.
We must think clearly about this issue: If there is such a God as is revealed in the Bible, then it follows that there are external standards of right and wrong. In that case, what the majority happens to believe is irrelevant. On the other hand, if there is no such God, then morality is indeed invented by people and agreed upon by each generation. But in that case, true moral principle ceases to exist, and in its place is a mere scramble to shape and dominate the masses. That is why, if God does not exist, both Nazism and Communism make perfect sense. Power is all there is.
No matter what notions are currently popular, our consciences still tell us there there is a God and that his standards are good and fair and right. So the question is, who will we listen to? Those who say, in effect, there is no right or wrong, just power? Or the God who created us and loves us?
Michael Bogart For more articles like this one, check out my website: mbogart.com
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