Monday, November 22, 2010

Objectively Immoral

When discussing moral issues one of the key points of misunderstanding typically lies in the difference between the objectively moral or immoral acts and a subjectively moral or immoral disposition. Essentially the what we do and why we do it. Modern culture assumes that all moral questions flow from the why and not from the what. That what matters is whether your heart is in the right place. If it is you can't be morally culpable. One example I find breaks this down is the 911 terrorists. If you assume, as many do, that they really believed they were doing good does it then follow that they are not morally responsible regardless of how objectively evil the act was? But most don't think through examples like that. They believe that as long as their intentions were good that is all that matters.

The belief is so ingrained it is normal that people don't even understand what you are saying when you talk about objectively immoral acts. People assume you are being judgmental. If immorality flows from a persons subjective moral disposition then saying an act is immoral amounts to judging the interior thoughts of anyone and everyone committing this act. But that is not what the church is talking about at all. If it was then you could say nothing about the morality of any act because any act can have infinitely many possible moral dispositions behind it. But that just isn't true. Certain acts are immoral by nature. That is true regardless of the mental and emotional state of the actor.

You see that with the latest condom comments. The pope comments on one possible subjective moral disposition of a condom user. Then everyone leaps to the conclusion that he has changed his mind on the objective morality of condom use. He didn't even address that. He probably should have said more to clarify this distinction but the assumptions of our culture run deep. Our ability to read more than 20 words of what the pope says is pretty weak as well. So most people would just assume the pope is slowly coming around to the position that condoms are great. Not exactly.

The objective/subjective thing is more confusing to protestants. They have a problem with objective morality because they have a problem discerning objective truth. If condoms are objectively immoral then how are we supposed to know it when our protestant teachers are telling us they are fine? So there is a subjective element to doctrinal uncertainty. We have to assume we don't need to know the truth about faith and morals because protestants can't agree on what that truth is. So moral knowledge is subjective so how can morality have an objective component?

The problem with subjective morality is that it does not fit the big picture of Christianity. We believe in a fallen world. Sin is normal but it isn't natural. Sin is everywhere but it is evil. So how can subjective morality be enough in a fallen world? We need to know what we fell from and what God is restoring us too. We can't look to our moral feelings for that. We need God to reveal that to us. Sure we have some spiritual sense of what God's will for our lives is but we need an objective, external plumb line to measure it against. Otherwise many will fall into the trap of what is common must be acceptable.

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