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Posted on February 17, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Realizing that there is objective moral truth

We live in a culture in which many believe that moral values and norms are based primarily on how a person feels about the action or issue being considered. This is seen as a very personal thing. Christian Smith, who has studied a cohort of 18 to 30 year olds that sociologists identify as emerging adults, has concluded that many of them have not thought very deeply or clearly about the origin of their moral concepts, but still have a strong sense of knowing what is right and wrong. When asked specifically where these ideas come from they commonly say they are based on intuition or feelings. Along with this idea that moral values are based on personal feelings comes the idea that it is wrong and judgmental to say that someone else’s moral beliefs are wrong. This seems to be related to the idea that those moral beliefs are based on how that person feels and that no one should tell another person how they ought to feel. Smith calls this way of viewing morality moral individualism. In some ways this is similar to the ethical concept of moral relativism, but it is different because it is not a rational rejection of objective moral truth. Instead, the concept of objective moral truth has not been seriously considered.

This way of thinking is in contrast to the idea held by Christian ethicists and many other philosophical ethicists that there is objective moral truth. These different ways of seeing the nature of moral thoughts lead to distinct difference in how we interact with each other when we have conflicting ideas about what is right and wrong. If we begin with the idea that our moral concepts are personal feelings and those feeling are an expression of who we are as a person then saying that someone’s understanding of what is right or wrong on a particular issue is incorrect can be interpreted as an attack on him or her as a person. Students thinking along these lines have told me that they think that it is unloving to tell a person that what they believe about an issue such as abortion or same-sex marriage is wrong.

However, if there is objective moral truth, our goal is to discover that truth. A discussion about a moral issue can be seen as an interaction between two people with an incomplete understanding of moral truth from which we can both benefit. Even the person who is defending a position that is in agreement with what is true can learn from a well-reasoned discussion with someone who is defending a position that is in fact false. And if a person has reason to believe that he or she understands what the moral truth is about an issue at hand and cares about a person who has a false understanding regarding that issue it is the loving thing to gently and graciously help that person who is mistaken understand what is true.

Moral individualism makes it impossible for us to learn anything from each other about what is right. Understanding that there is objective moral truth helps us to learn from each other and from the resources God has given us to find that truth. Repentance and forgiveness are at the foundation of the Christian faith. However, if there is no objective moral truth, there is no need for repentance and no need for Jesus’ sacrificial death. If we allow our students and others in the church to absorb moral individualism from the culture around us without helping them understand the reality of objective moral truth we have failed them.

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