In my post two weeks ago I made the point that as leaders we should make decisions based on objective, transcendent moral principles. Last week I responded to one objection often raised that we must be ready to answer. This week I’ll respond to the other two objections often raised against this view.
Objection 2: "There is No Agreement on Transcendent Principles, So They Cannot be Used as a Basis for Public Decisions"
There are at least four responses to this objection:
(1) If universal agreement is required before a moral decision can be made, we must give up many closely held and clearly true views. For instance, we believe in the universality of human rights. But there are always some who disagree—for instance the white supremacist, the human trafficker and the dictator. They reject this transcendent principle because affirming it would limit their freedom to act on their desires in one way or another. But just because they don’t agree is not a good reason to give up on this transcendent principle. Rather, we should affirm the transcendent principle and say those who disagree are simply wrong. Individual rights don’t trump transcendent principles.
(2) There is extremely widespread acceptance of many transcendent principles, which I have argued previously here and here. In fact, even those who say there is no agreement cannot help but grant there is agreement by implicitly affirming what they deny. For instance, notice how often moral relativists use words such as “should,” “duty,” “must,” “right” and “wrong” in public discussions. (For instance, “We should treat people fairly,” “We must seek justice for those discriminated against,” “We have a duty to care for the environment,” “We should be tolerant,” and “It is our responsibility protect and preserve life when it is within our power to do so.”) These words belie the assumption that we all can agree on these objective moral values.
Furthermore, those raising this objection will argue that others “should give their objection a fair hearing” or that others “must allow their objection to be part of the discussion.” So by raising this objection one is already assuming that there is agreement on the transcendent moral principles of fairness in evaluating positions and a duty to honestly consider objections. But at that point the “game is up” because what is being objected to is already assumed to be true!
(3) It can be shown that when such transcendent principles are used in public decision-making, the result is human flourishing and the common good. For instance, John Mackenzies’ Ph.D. dissertation from UNC-Chapel Hill shows a clear link between Christian missionaries promoting biblical, transcendent principles and the flourishing of the nations they served (for example, these nations becoming stable democracies, providing citizens the right to vote, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, flourishing hospitals and health care, economic growth, education for all, and protection for the vulnerable). The human flourishing and common good that results from adopting these transcendent principles are reasons they should be employed in public decision-making, even though there is not universal agreement.
(4) The fact that not everyone “sees” transcendent principles does not mean they don’t exist. Similarly, not everyone sees color, but this does not mean color does not exist. It may just mean that the person is colorblind. And the more evidence there is that color exists, the more reason we have to believe the person is in fact color blind. In the same way, the fact that some don’t “see” these transcendent principles may just mean that the person is “blind” to them. And the more evidence there that transcendent principles exist (as discussed previously and below), the more we must admit some are in fact blind to these transcendent principles.
So the question is not whether there is universal agreement on a principle, but rather whether there is good reason to believe the principle exists (and so is true) and therefore will lead to human flourishing and the common good. This leads to the third objection.
Objection 3: "There Are No Transcendent Principles To Begin With, So They Can Not Be The Basis for Public Decisions"
This is the “nominalist” objection—there simply are no transcendent, universal realities. It is a stronger claim of what is real (metaphysics), not just what can be known (epistemology). It claims everything that exists is nothing more than a particular this or that. So moral principles are just this particular moral value I happen to hold or that particular value you happen to hold. In other words, “What’s right for you is right for you, and what’s right for me is right for me.” There is no Right, Transcendent, Objective Moral Value to be embraced. Morality reduces to nothing more than “your morality” and “my morality.”
In legal studies this is known as “Legal Positivism” and comes up when answering questions such as “What makes a law good?” and “On what basis are rights protected?” The Legal Positivist answers that laws are good merely because they have been agreed to by “recognized institutions” (legislative bodies and courts of law).
At least three things can be said in response to this objection:
(1) If this is true, it means “moral reformers” like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were actually evil men, because they stood up against what the recognized institutions of their time and place said was right (and therefore was right, on this view).
But this is not our reaction. Rather we praise these moral reformers for standing up to the “recognized institutions” and saying their laws were wrong and invalid, because they violate a higher law (a law that transcended their time and place). The only way to make sense of our reaction is by acknowledging these transcendent principles exist and therefore should be instituted in the laws of the land.
(2) The second response takes this a bit further, developing the first argument to Objection 2 above. If we assume no transcendent principles exist, then such values must be nothing more than relativistic opinions that we in our culture or time happen to believe.
But we run into a problem when another culture does not share our opinion. When human rights are violated (such as the oppression in North Korea or the genocide in Darfur, South Sudan), on the relativistic view we cannot speak out against these “evils.” All we can say is “That’s not what we would do in our culture. But we wouldn’t want to impose our culture’s morality on them.”
Notice this is not anyone’s reaction, including those who espouse moral relativism. We all stand united against the actions of these nations, calling them wrong and working to stop these violations of universal human rights through sanctions and other interventions. We simply know that there are transcendent principles such as respecting individuals as intrinsically valuable, and therefore promoting the rights to life, equality, freedom of speech, freedom of association, etc. But without transcendent principles there is no way to ground these as being better than the values of coercion, persecution, racism or even genocide.
(Parenthetically, there is always a close link between the rejection of transcendent principles of human worth and atrocities. This is because when transcendent principles are rejected the next logical question becomes, “Since there are no transcendent principles, why are any principles better than any others? Therefore why should I follow any law or moral code at all?” Such thinking ends in one of two states, neither of which promotes human flourishing and the common good. One result is anarchy, in which “each person does what is right in his or her own eyes.” The other result is a state in which one person decides to impose his will on others. This is what the nominalist philosopher Nietzsche promoted in his notion of the “Uberman” and Hitler read and took to heart.)
(3) A third response is a more detailed and rigorous defense of realism—the alternative to nominalism. Realism is the philosophical position that transcendent things exist (like the transcendent moral principles discussed here). There is much to say in support of realism, much more than can be discussed in this post. So I will have to save this discussion for a later time.
(This is the topic of my doctoral dissertation, and something I’ve published on elsewhere. If you would like for me to send you something I’ve written on this, please let me know and I will be happy to do so.)
For these reasons, as leaders who must make public, moral decisions, we should understand the transcendent principles relevant to each issue, and have the courage to apply these principles to decisions in ways that promote human flourishing and the common good.
But this is not enough. Next week I’ll discuss the second way we can be sure we make decisions that are good, right, wise and just.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading, I suggest Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics by Scott Rae