Can morality be judged across time? I used to listen to a radio call in show when I lived in Denver. The host of this show used to always say “We live in interesting times”. Looking back on the past few months, we are indeed living in interesting times.
On top of a worldwide pandemic, we are now trying to come to grips with how we as a society will deal with the issue of race. One thing seems clear. There is not a quick fix for this issue. We can’t simply snap our fingers and make racism go away. It is going to take a concerted effort by everyone involved to come up with a solution. And it will be a painful process.
Erase The Past
One attempt to solve the race issue has been to try and remove anything that has been historically tied to racism. Statues, monuments, buildings and street signs have all been targeted for removal. In England the road “Penny Lane”, immortalized in The Beatles song of the same name, is in the cross hairs for being possibly associated with an individual that argued in favor of the institution of slavery.
I’m not going to argue one way or another in this post as to whether or not this is a good strategy to combat racism. I think in many cases this may be appropriate. But the more interesting thing to me is the application of moral standards across time. It seems to fly in the face of some naturalistic explanations for morality. I think this type of moral reasoning can make sense. But it only does so on a Christian worldview.
The Social Contract Theory Of Morality
All world views make an attempt to ground morality. Theists claim that the grounding for morality lies in the nature of God Himself. But what if you don’t believe in God? Then you have to try and find a way to explain why people should behave in a certain way. Unless you believe in total anarchy, we all need to have a common set of rules we agree to live by.
One of the theories of how we get morality is known as the “Social Contract Theory”. The basic idea is that morality is formulated by social contract between the people and the government. Whatever is legal at the time is moral.
Does This Make Sense?
The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t allow for the condemnation of moral behaviors outside of a society. For instance, if the plantation owners of the south during the 1800’s agreed that slavery was ok, that was their social contract. We don’t have any basis to judge their actions or their social contract.
This was the same argument that the Nazi leaders gave at the Nuremburg trials. They claimed that in their society, it was ok to oppress and murder Jews. It was how they got promoted. Further, outsiders had no right to judge their society and their social contract.
The judges at the trials did not buy this defense. The rightly held to the “law above the law”. In other words, even if people in a society agree that a wrong action is ok, it’s still wrong. This allows us to make moral judgements on things like antebellum slavery. Even though it was thought of as being acceptable in the Southern states of the U.S, we can rightly condemn it today. We recognize the “law above the law”.
The Current Culture
If the social contract view of morality is correct, then we cannot look at reminders of the past and say that they reflect wrong doing. This only makes sense on a theistic worldview. The social contract view does not give us moral authority to judge other cultures at other times in history.
As we watch the current events unfold, we should keep in mind that when we say things like racism and slavery are wrong, we are not just saying we don’t like them. We are saying they are objectively wrong. They were never right, and they never will be right. This isn’t simply a preference. We are not describing what flavor of ice cream we like. We are making statements about objective truths.
Racism is wrong. At all places and at all times, it is wrong. We are right to condemn it when we see it. And we are right to point out the errors of the past. We can and must learn from our mistakes. And from that aspect, it is important to remember and be taught about the past. But it is just as important to remember that the only way we can rightly say things are wrong is if we have a “law above the law”. If we fail to understand this, our solutions to society’s problems will ultimately fail.
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