The Case for Moral Objectivity
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting on moral objectivity. I’ve gotten some pushback from a few people that I have great admiration for, which has inspired me to re-examine my own convictions. Before I go any further, I’m going to show my cards.
First and foremost, I am a moral realist. I believe that an objective moral order exists independently of human reason. This objective moral order is the natural order of the universe, which has been created by God. Our human capacity to reason – which is itself a gift from God – enables us to reflect on what it means to be human, what it means to live in relationship with other human beings and earthcreatures, and how we ought to live out those relationships in a responsible manner.
Sure, human reason can be erroneous. It can also quickly turn into a hegemonic power discourse. We need not look too far back in history to know the truth of this tragedy. Think women. Think persons of color. Think Jews. And the list goes on and on and on. We should rightfully be suspicious of any claims that objectively discriminate against a certain group of people, because all humans are first and foremost humans, together. Women. Persons of color. Jews. All created in God’s image and likeness. All persons with inherent dignity. This is an objective moral truth.
People have rights, actions do not. Actions are not people. Actions do, however, have an impact on the character formation of their actors. If a person develops the habit of lying – then their propensity to lie, which is a bad character trait, will have an adverse effect on their overall moral character. So, actions must undergo a careful and thorough scrutiny. That said, we must be weary of talk about moral perversity. Think queer people. Our LGBTIQA sisters and brothers have been the victims of heteronormativity, a particularly insidious hegemonic power discourse. Which is why consulting human experience, especially the experience of those on the margins of both church and society, is of the utmost importance in ethics and matters of social justice.
So, how is experience not relative? Experience can, in fact, illuminate universal truths. If you do not eat, you will die. The loss of a loved one is saddening. I’ll never forget the experience of watching those children march out of Sandy Hook Elementary School in a single-file line. This searing image angered many of us at the injustice of gun violence. Shooting and killing children is wrong. This is an objective moral truth.
The world in which we live is broken, namely because of human sinfulness and our freedom to do wrong and to orient ourselves to badness. James Keenan defines sin as “the failure to bother to love.” Genocide. Torture. Starvation. Mountaintop removal. Rape. Economic exploitation. These are all the consequences of human sin, of failing to love. An objective moral order exists to show us that – no matter the specific, particular, cultural context – the aforementioned actions are wrong and worthy of unequivocal condemnation. Because all humans are first and foremost human, together — and together, we are called to love.
We are greater than our particular cultural context or situation. Our call to care for each other and our planet is universal and binding. This is not just true for me, it’s true for all of us.