Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Conversations with Angie: More reasons why moral differences are consistent with universally known moral values

Angie,

I want to add something to the last email I sent. I gave you three reasons why I don't think the differences in moral views from culture to culture is any indication that there aren't objective moral values that can be known. There's a fourth point I meant to make but didn't think of when I was writing that email...

Fourth, moral decision-making is not always easy. Now there are some moral decisions that are clear case examples. For example, it's wrong to torture children for the mere pleasure of watching them suffer. But a lot of decisions are more difficult, and some even seem impossible. Most of our moral decision-making involves some process of reasoning. We reason from some basic general moral premises to specific situations. Sometimes, we reason incorrectly because our logic is flawed, we don't think carefully through the issue, or we don't have all the facts. Just as people make mistakes in math and geometry, because it sometimes involves a process of reasoning, so also do people make mistakes in moral reasoning. The differences in moral views between cultures can sometimes be attributed simply to a different process of reasoning from the same underlying moral principles. So the underlying moral principles are the same, but the process of reasoning is different.

Another thing that makes moral decision-making difficult is the reality of moral dilemmas. That's where it seems like two moral values come into conflict in a particular situation, and you have to choose the lesser of two evils, or the greater of two goods, and it's hard to decide between them. The classic example is harboring Jews during the holocaust. What do you do when the Nazi's knock on your door and ask, "Do you have any Jews here?" Well, on the one hand, you have this moral imperatives that says it's wrong to lie. But on the other hand, you have this moral imperatives that says it's wrong to send innocent people to their doom, and you ought to protect them. But in this situation you can't do both at the same time. This may not be the best scenario, because I think it's clear in this scenario that you would be morally justified in lying. My point, though, is that there are some situations where it just isn't clear what the right thing to do is. That's why people have disagreements.

Maybe a better scenario is the abortion debate. I mentioned before that in most cases, the difference in moral views about abortion can be attributed, not to a difference in moral values, but to a difference in opinion about the facts informing those values. People differ on the status of the unborn--whether they are humans or persons or whatever. But there are a few pro-choice people who will agree that the unborn are human beings with personhood and all that, but they nevertheless think abortion is okay. They argue like so:

1. A woman has a right to sovereignty over her own body.
2. Abortion involves a woman excercizing sovereignty over her own body.
3. Therefore, a woman has a right to abortion.

From this argument, you can see that there are two moral values that come into conflict. There's a humans being's right to life on the one hand, and there's a woman's right to sovereignty over her own body on the other hand. Both pro-life people and pro-choice people agree with both values. Where they disagree is in which value ought to take precedence in the case of pregnancy. Pro-life people think the right to life trumps the right to sovereignty over your own body. Pro-choice people think the right to sovereignty over your own body trumps the right to life.

But if you think about it, it makes no sense at all for people to debate moral problems if there are no objective moral values. When people debate, they're trying to show that their view is right and the other person's view is wrong. But if morals are subjective, then arguing over a moral issue is just as ridiculous as arguing over whether ice cream tastes good. The only way for one person to be correct and another person to be incorrect is if there is a correct answer--and objective truth about morality. It's BECAUSE there are objective moral values that moral debate is meaningful. So disagreements in morality don't disprove that there are no objectively true answers, nor that they they can be known.

I'm sending your book and tapes tomorrow. Isn't that exciting?

Sam

Conversations with Angie:  Greg Koukl and Relativism

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