Public Square & Theology 101

Are We Defining Morality on a Sliding Scale?

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In a recent interview with ABC News, former FBI Director James Comey said President Trump was “morally unfit to be President of the United States.” Rather than argue for or against Comey’s perspective, the question I’d like to pose today is “what is moral?

Admittedly, trying to answer that question is not easy given the moral relativism of our age. We live in a culture where ethics and morals are nearly obsolete. The idea of right and wrong seems to be up for grabs, or at least up for a vote.

At IFWE, this question of morality matters a lot as we explore the best approach to human flourishing. Specifically, we’re asking the question, is free-market capitalism moral?

In a 2013 Washington Post article, Steven Pearlstein asked this very question. His answer, although interesting, seemed incomplete. To sufficiently answer the question about the morality of capitalism, you have to ask the question, “what is moral?” Pearlstein failed to ask and answer this question.

Defining Morality

This poem by Abraham Edel expresses the vagueness that exists concerning moral values today:

It all depends on where you are;
It all depends on who you are;
It all depends on how you feel;
It all depends on what you feel;
It all depends on how you’re raised;
It all depends on what is praised;
What’s right today is wrong tomorrow;
Joy in France, in England sorrow;
It all depends on points of view;
Australia, or Timbuctoo [sic];
In Rome do as the Romans do;
If tastes just happen to agree, then you have morality;
But where there are conflicting trends,
it all depends, it all depends…

In 1998, an independent group of heads of state from around the world issue the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, a statement later considered by the United Nations. One paragraph reads:

No person, no group, no organization, no state, no army or police stands above good and evil; all are subject to ethical standards. Everyone has a responsibility to promote good and to avoid evil in all things.

But who decides what is good and what is not? Where does a society in which many believe we are the chance product of an evolutionary process find a basis for “moral” standards?

Finding a Basis for Morality

Some people look to the evolutionary process itself for their moral foundation. Philip Yancey, in an article written in 1998 for Christianity Today describes evolutionary psychologists as society’s new prophets. And they are still here, arguing that morality is an adaptation, crafted by the invisible hand of natural selection and written on our DNA.

Evolutionary psychology relies on a single principle called the selfish gene that leads to behaviors that pass our genes onto the next generation. Yet the strange logic that ties the survival of the fittest to the development of a “genetic” morality obscures a simple truth: the truth of God. As Romans 1:25 says, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” 

However, as Christians, we believe that God does exist, he has created us for a purpose, and he is ultimately going to judge us by some criteria of his choosing. God has given us special revelation in his scripture, so that we will know what he specifically requires from us as his followers.

While we are saved by grace, not our works, we have been redeemed by the work of Christ and are expected to live our lives in service to God. The Bible gives us a clear picture of what that looks like.

Expressing Moral Law

The moral law described in both the Old Testament (summarized in the Ten Commandments) and the New Testament (summarized in the Sermon on the Mount) gives us a clear set of absolute principles around which we are to organize our behavior. This stands in stark contrast to most ethical systems that lack a fixed, timeless, and unchanging measuring point, such as God and his moral law.

Jesus summarizes the moral law like this:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

To rightly use the term “moral,” then, it is important to decide what our behavior should be in relation to an external, fixed standard and to whom we are ultimately held accountable. For the Christian who believes God’s word is our guide for everything in life, neither of these should be an issue.

Our faith and our firm foundation in God and his moral law allow Christians to answer questions about morality with authority. There is no sliding scale of morality that adapts over time based on the changing winds of public opinion. Our transcendent God provides a fixed point for defining what is moral.


Editor’s note: Is capitalism immoral? Read more in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism.

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