A Moral Absolute is an obligation binding on all persons everywhere throughout all time without exception.
For a long time it was popular in modern American culture to insist that there is no such thing as moral absolutes, but I have yet to meet a person who really believes it, that is, who lives as if there were no such thing. I suspect what they really mean is that they don't want to be held accountable for their own actions, while still insisting that everybody else be constrained by the moral absolutes they reject for themselves.
Ted Olson's editorial "Differently Moral" in April 2017 ChristianityToday argues that moral relativism has been replaced by outrage. He assumes as obvious, rather than saying clearly, that outrage is ridiculous unless there are moral absolutes being violated: you cannot righteously get mad at a person for following his own moral code that happens to be different than yours, you can only be properly outraged when everybody is obligated to an objective standard of behavior, and somebody fails to live up to it. It seems that the Trump election nailed the lid on the moral relativism coffin. There a few atheist zombies who have not yet gotten the message, but nobody ever accused atheists of being smart. This essay is for them.
In this essay I explore several topics related to moral absolutes, but only the last section ever mentions God or religion, because if there is such a thing as moral absolutes, they must be binding on God also:
How To Recognize Moral Absolutes
Objections to Moral Absolutes
Living Without Moral Absolutes
Moral Absolutes in the Bible
Law is an imperfect social construct designed to attach penalties to what everybody (or at least the tiny minority of people in control of the law -- in this country, that's the Supreme Court) already knows is immoral and Wrong. But it is imperfect. It is exceedingly difficult to draw a precise line between immoral behavior that we can forbid in the law and attach punishment to on the one hand, and perfectly reasonable behavior that is therefore not immoral. Did you ever read the fine print EULA ("End User License Agreement") that you are required to "agree" to before using computer software? When you agree to it, it becomes a contract with the force of law: It is the law governing your usage of that software. The difference between the EULA and the law that sends you to jail for running over a pedestrian is that the EULA was defined by a single lawyer paid by a single corporation with no input from the other parties required to agree to it -- sort of like the Supreme Court inventing and adding rights to the Constitution that Congress and the will of the people never contemplated -- whereas most of the laws you are bound to in this country are debated by legislators elected from a variety of cultural backgrounds and constituencies. Most EULAs explicitly forbid just about any use you might legitimately want to put their software to. Nobody expects the EULA to be enforced, so they get away with it, and it amounts to nothing more than a CYA defense in case some other lawyer wants to launch a frivolous lawsuit against the deep-pockets software vendor. With 50% of the world's lawyers supported by only 5% of the world's population, American lawyers must work hard to maintain their lavish lifestyle. The law does not define morality, but it often expresses what people believe is moral and Right and True. Just not when one greedy or narrow-minded lawyer wrote it without push-back from the other people bound by it.
Consensus is a good clue as to what is moral and Right, but not an absolute proof. All new buildings in Jerusalem are required to use the local pink limestone for their outside appearance. It's the law, but it's not a moral issue, only an esthetic. The citizens, through their elected representatives, decided it gives the city a desirable "golden" appearance. Israeli law tolerates abortion, and more Jews have been killed in Israel by Jewish abortionists than Hitler killed during his whole time in power. I suspect the Jews have not really thought about what they are doing to themselves. Similarly, abortion in America has always had a racist genocidal agenda, disproportionately targeting people of African descent, yet that demographic regularly votes for the one political party that actively promotes such genocide and not for the party that opposes it. Genocide was evil and Wrong in Hitler's Germany, and it is still evil and Wrong in modern USA, despite that the law said (and still says) otherwise.
People who hold an opinion about what is Right and Wrong at odds with the local law are not proving the difference between morality (their personal opinions) and ethics (the law), but only that it's a hard question. Maybe their opinions are nothing more than personal opinions, like whether they should eat fish on Fridays, or whether people should be allowed to buy low-pollution tungsten lightbulbs, or else maybe the law is wrong. We (and the lawmakers) won't always guess right.
But the fact that there are differences of opinion is no proof -- not even strong evidence -- that there is no such thing as moral absolutes. It's like color: some things are obviously red (like fire engines and ripe strawberries), and other things are kind of borderline, like auburn hair: Is it red or brown? The fact that we cannot agree on the color of some things does not mean there is no such thing as red. The fact that there is so little agreement on whether a mother should be allowed to kill her unborn baby does not mean that we should let people gun down anybody in the street without penalty. Or that we should let people steal our money with false scales and mislabelled cans. Truth is a moral absolute, and we can (and should) enforce Truth in many contexts. It would be nice if we could make the politicians tell the truth, but it ain't gonna happen. That doesn't mean that we cannot insist on truth in packaging, and the USA is right to have laws that say so.
2+3=5 is a moral absolute, binding on all people everywhere, because every one of us reasonably expects that if you give a merchant a $5 bill to pay for a $2 purchase, he will give you $3 in change, not $2 or $4. He has a moral obligation to do so, and you and he (and everybody else) knows he is Wrong (with a capital "W") if he gives only $1 in change. It matters not one slightest that you never saw him before, nor even that he's from India and you from South America, he is obligated to give you the Right change, and not the Wrong change.
So the question before us is not "Is there such a thing as moral absolutes?"
-- because we just now proved that there is at least one moral absolute
-- but rather, "How can we know whether this obligation is a moral
absolute or merely a personal preference?"
Who wants to be lied to? Employers don't want their potential employees lying about their past experience or present abilities, and if they catch you at it, you're toast. Customers at a restaurant don't want to be told that the food they are being served is clean and healthy if in fact it's contaminated or poisonous. The same for groceries. Nobody wants a bank teller to say you have $1000 in your checking account after she took out all but $10 and put it in her own account. Jokes may be fun for everybody around, but not always for the person on the receiving end. If your doctor knows you are dying of a rare disease, wouldn't you rather know it, so you can spend your final days getting your affairs in order? I have never met a person who wants to be lied to. Truth is a Moral Absolute.
This is more important than appears on the surface. If Truth is not a moral absolute, then everybody can invent their own "truth" and your "truth" is just as good as mine. That means there is no external Reality about which we can make True and False propositions, and there is no way to distinguish True from False, no way to determine which propositions conform to that external Reality and which do not. Most of all, it means nobody can argue rationally that anything is true or false! In particular, arguing that there is no such thing as moral absolutes depends on the moral absolute Truth to be intelligible.
Who wants to be treated unjustly or unfairly (same thing)? You didn't do anything wrong, but they throw you in jail anyway, just for fun, or because they don't like your skin color, or they want to steal your house or your wife. Or cut your hand off for swiping a loaf of bread when you're hungry. The horror of Abu Ghraib is that these people did not deserve that kind of mistreatment. Justice is a Moral Absolute.
The only time people don't want justice is when they really deserve
what's coming to them. Then they want mercy. Mercy is also a Moral Absolute.
These three are interesting particular cases of a more general principle we call the Golden Rule (GR). Although it is said to occur in some form or another in every religion, it is not a religious principle and makes no reference to any deity. Even the atheists (mostly) agree on the GR. Immanuel Kant (no theist) called it the "Categorical Imperative," which is nothing more than two words meaning "an obligation binding on all persons without exception."
The GR does make it reasonably easy to identify moral absolutes of any kind: Is that what you want people to do to you? Is there any credible case where somebody has a good reason to want it done to themselves? If not, then the prohibition is probably a moral absolute.
We have two clues that numbers and ordinary arithmetic constitute moral absolutes: First, that the numbers and arithmetic never change, and 2+3=5 equally in India and Argentina and on the back side of the moon, and that we can make moral decisions based on it, we can judge that the merchant giving wrong change is Wrong, everywhere in the world, without exception. If there were merchants on the moons of Jupiter, the same numbers work for them too, and they too are obligated to give correct change.
Second, the merchant can know that giving correct change is a moral absolute, because when he goes to buy something, he also wants to get correct change back. By applying the GR he knows that it is the Right thing to do.
Notice that murder is not a moral absolute. Most people do not want to be killed, but as medical procedures become increasingly invasive and costly, more and more people are giving thought to the idea of artificially ending their own lives by what is euphemistically called "euthanasia" (Greek for "good death"). I personally don't approve -- and I don't particularly think Oregon is a good state to grow old in -- but more states than Oregon are allowing doctors to abdicate their Hippocratic oaths and actively kill people who want it (or who a judge deemed should want it, even if they don't). When people are out killing other people, one purpose of capital punishment is to put a stop to it. If you don't want to do it on an individual level, we still (reluctantly) tolerate it on a national level: killing Hitler and his war machine to stop his murderous rampages. Maybe there's a way to stop the Jihadists without killing them, but I doubt it.
If the limestone quarries around Jerusalem ever gave out, or if they
started to become an eyesore, then it would become uneconomical to require
pink limestone facades on Jerusalem buildings, and the city would no doubt
repeal that requirement. The requirement comes and it goes, it is not binding
on all people everywhere (only on builders in Jerusalem), and not necessarily
over all time. Therefore it's obviously only a personal preference and
not even a moral obligation (except insofar as obeying the law is an obligation),
let alone an absolute. It's still the law, but we must be careful not to
confuse the law with morals.
1. "Morals are emergent from society," with the apparent implication that this disproves that they can be absolute.
First off, where they came from tells us nothing about what they are. Butter comes from cream, peanut butter from peanuts; one is almost pure animal fat, the other is vegetable fat and proteins and non-nutritive solid materials. Both are called "butter," both have fat, but they came from totally different sources.
Second, societies do not have properties like morals, people have morals, and you can discuss the morals of groups of people only by reference to the morals of the individual people in that group. The person who tried to argue this to me was confusing the law with morality. Societies may have laws, but the laws were created by people, perhaps an elected legislature reflecting the will of (some of) the voters, or perhaps an unelected tyrant or judge imposing his own values on the society under his control, but always they come from particular people, not the fact that they are in a group. Anyway, as pointed out in the previous section, laws do not perfectly reflect the morality of the people.
The fellow who started out with this claim then shifted his tack -- you can tell there is a hidden agenda when people argue contradictory arguments for a particular position, it is evidence that they do not themselves consider these arguments compelling, but they are ashamed of the real reasons for their opinions -- he then claimed that morals emerge from interactions. This is easily disproved with the (2+3=5) moral absolute: the buyer and the seller never had any previous interaction, yet both already know that there is an obligation binding on the merchant to return correct change. You cannot even back it off to the cultures they grew up in, because it's still true when a tourist goes to a far country and the first day he buys something at the airport there. The morality of correct change is absolute, binding on all people everywhere without exception, and without regard to the societies the people are members of, and certainly not waiting to ooze out from interactions. The traveller and the vendor may negotiate the price, but they do not negotiate correct change after the price is set, it's a given, a moral absolute.
2. "In some cultures people are expected to have multiple wives, but in other cultures it is forbidden," therefore moral absolutes cannot be binding on all people everywhere.
This confuses the whole with the part. Some moral values (like how many wives a man should have) are contingent, others (like the correct change from a $5 bill for a $2 purchase) are absolute. Some cars are red, others are blue. The fact that red cars exist does not prove that there cannot also be blue cars. My sister had a red car, and I had a blue car at the same time. Both cars existed. Some moral values are contingent, others are absolute.
3. "Suppose moral absolutes exist, but they are unknowable," therefore it is "unfair" (his word) that they should be binding on people who don't know about them.
This is a really interesting argument, because he is supposing that fairness (another word meaning Justice) is a moral absolute binding on me, so that arguing on the basis of fairness is compelling! If he doesn't believe that obligations can be binding on all people everywhere, then fairness is not an obligation he can expect to be binding on me. My mother always told me as a child that the world is unfair. Maybe that's true, but we all expect that it should be fair. Fairness (Justice) is a moral absolute, binding even on people who refuse to submit to it.
But because Fairness is a moral absolute, his argument is compelling -- if it is true. Is it true? Obviously it cannot be compelling if Truth is not a moral absolute, so this argument also depends on Truth being a moral absolute. It is, so now we must look and see if moral absolutes are knowable. For if not, then it is unfair, and because fairness is also a moral absolute, we have a contradiction, which disproves our claim that Truth -- or at least Justice -- are moral absolutes.
How can a person know a moral absolute? We already answered that question: Apply the Golden Rule.
What about newborn babies, do they know moral absolutes? Since they cannot talk to us and tell us what they know, we don't really know what they know. Once they begin to talk -- perhaps even before then -- they are trained in the moral values of their parents. So now they know. What if the parents failed to teach them? Ah, but they don't fail.
Did you ever watch the Art Linkletter "People Are Funny" TV show? He had a favorite segment each week, where he would invite very young children onto the stage with him, and ask them "What did your mommy tell you not to tell me?" It was hilarious, because the kids told the truth. They had to be trained by their parents to lie.
People are apparently born with an innate knowledge of moral absolutes. It is only when they get older and learn how to do complex moral calculus that they learn otherwise and try to argue against moral absolutes.
Moral absolutes are knowable and everybody knows them.
You cannot live in this world without assuming that there are such things as moral absolutes binding on everybody, and nobody ever does live that way. At the very least you must assume that numbers and arithmetic work the way we learned them (2+3=5). That's a moral absolute, because every one of us reasonably expects that if we give a merchant a $5 bill to pay for a $2 purchase, he will give us $3 in change, not $2 or $4. He has a moral obligation to do so, and we expect it. If there were no moral absolutes, he could give any change he wanted (or none at all) and there would be nothing we could do about it -- other than beat him up. But if you wanted to do that, you could beat him up and take his merchandise without paying at all. He reasonably expects you to pay for what you take, as part of a whole system of moral absolutes, and you comply with it -- or go to jail. There are no working societies anywhere in which you can take anything you want any time you want, and pay anything you want (or nothing) for it. Quid pro quo is very nearly a moral absolute, excepted only in the case of gifts (at the election of the giver) -- and even there we have cultural expectations of quid pro quo.
If there are no moral absolutes, then Truth is not a moral absolute, and everybody can invent their own "truth" and everybody's opinion is just as valid as any other. Nobody can argue against moral absolutes without depending on moral absolutes to make their case. If there is an objective external Reality about which we can make True and False propositions, and if there is a way to distinguish True propositions which conform to that external Reality from False propositions which do not, and if anybody can (in principle) make that determination, then that ability is the moral obligation we call Truth, and it is in fact binding on all people everywhere. Arguing that there is no such thing as moral absolutes depends on the moral absolute Truth to be intelligible. Otherwise the existence of moral absolutes is itself nothing more than a personal preference, which (like a preference for cherry pie) can be declared but not argued.
The ancient Greek philosopher Epimenides famously said "All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan." If he is a Cretan and all Cretans are liars, then he must be a liar, so he is necessarily also lying about being a liar. It's not all that different from when somebody says "There are no moral absolutes," (that is, Truth is not a moral absolute binding on me), which means they do not believe there is any such thing as True and that we should therefore not take anything he says as true -- including when he says he doesn't believe in moral absolutes. Like Epimenides, it's basically self-contradictory, telling us nothing at all (except that he is lying, as another somewhat more recent thinker remarked).
So anybody who claims not to believe in moral absolutes is lying. They not only believe in moral absolutes, they depend on them every day of their lives.
By the way, the guy with all these arguments against moral absolutes
later admitted that the reason he rejected truth as a moral value is that
if he allowed it, then I would argue that it is a moral absolute binding
on all people everywhere, which he rejects. In other words, all his bluster
is driven by an unsavory conclusion, and not by facts at all. He was begging
the question. I knew that, but Truth is a moral absolute binding also on
him, so his own values forced him to admit it, nevermind his preferences.
Jesus referred to "the weightier matters of the Law, Justice, Truth, and Mercy" [Matt.23:23] because they are more important than contingent obligations like tithing. "Do not neglect" the tithing, he said, but if some things are going to slip, tithes (a contingent obligation) are less important that these "weighty matters," which are in fact moral absolutes. Many Bible translations render the second item in that list as "faithfulness," but the ancient idea of truth matches the modern philosophical definition = conformance to reality. Faithfulness is about conformance. The Hebrew word for "truth" ('emeth') has the same root as their word of assent ("amen").
Elsewhere Jesus and Paul (and before them, Moses) all taught the GR. Jesus called it "the Second Great Commandment" [Matt.22:39], second to giving God the respect He deserves as Creator.
If Moral Absolutes are obligations binding on all persons everywhere throughout all time without exception, then they must be binding also on God. That makes God less than sovereign, right? Maybe in our culture of freedom = no rules, or maybe not.
Let us suppose for argument, that there are no morals binding on God, that what God declares is Right is Right, and what God declares is Wrong is Wrong, because He said so. That's a logically consistent position to take, but it's not taught in the Bible. Certainly, when God says "Thou shalt..." or "Thou shalt not..." those things are Right or Wrong (as the case may be), but not because God said so, but rather God said so because it is true. How do we know that?
Several times in the Bible we are told that "it is impossible for God to lie" [Titus 1.2, Heb.6:18] and also the Devil "is the father of all lies" [John 8:44] and there will be no liars in Heaven [Rev.21:8]. Why would it say that, if the nature of a lie is whatever God said it is? No, rather we are being told that God Himself is constrained by the moral absolute we call Truth. It is not that something is true because God said it, but rather God said it because it is True. If Truth is a moral absolute binding on all persons, it must also be binding on God Himself, because God is Personal, and God is Good. If Truth is not a moral absolute, then it makes no sense to tell us that God cannot lie, because lying only makes sense as part of what God says to do. That's an indirect inference, which one should invoke only cautiously, but there is no comparable inference the other way to contradict it.
Justice is a moral absolute by our analysis, and there is this very interesting argument that Abraham has with God, when God is getting ready to destroy Sodom. "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" he asks [Gen.18:25]. What kind of question is that, if "right" is whatever God defines to be right? It is totally inappropriate and insolent -- unless God is bound by the moral absolute Justice! And God accepts the argument as valid without complaint nor rebuke.
If Justice is a moral absolute, then when God condemns the wicked on Judgment Day, it is not because He is capricious and they refused to do what they didn't know was Wrong (because He didn't tell them), but because they themselves knew they were Wrong at the time. We see this when Jesus tells us what Judgment Day will be like, in the parables of the Talents [Mat.25:26] and the Minas [Luke 19:22], where the King (God) says, "You knew I had a right to RoI (return on my investment), why didn't you put it out for interest?" On another occasion [Mat.12:37] Jesus said that we must give an account for even our idle words, and we will be judged by those accounts, by our own admission of what we thought we were doing. The Apostle Paul points out [Rom.2:15] that apart from any revelation from God, the wicked still know what is Right and Wrong without being told, and they use that knowledge to condemn or excuse other people.
If Justice is not a moral absolute, then none of these things are true -- nor do they even make any sense -- and God is as capricious and mean-spirited as the atheists claim He is.
If there is no such thing as moral absolutes, no absolute Right and Wrong, then God cannot justly condemn any sinner to Hell, because each of us "looked inside [our] own heart" and "did what was right in [our] own eyes." But God is righteous [Gen.18:25]. When God condemns the wicked, it is because their condemnation is true and right and just, because God is Good, not mean-spirited or capricious or arbitrary.
I have a friend who admits to being an atheist, and who has stopped arguing his religion with me -- I think he was not prepared for somebody to actually have answers to his objections -- but he once argued that God is unfair to exclude people from Heaven for reasons other than performance. That was the last time he discussed religion with me, probably because I pointed out he did that in his own business (see "Categories"). He wanted to argue that God was unjust, while he did and defended exactly the same thing in himself. The atheists understand moral absolutes like Justice (and Mercy) -- at least when defending their own activities. That's what moral absolutes do for us.
Situation ethics (aka moral relativism) holds that there is no such thing as absolute Right and Wrong, that everything must be judged on the basis of the situation and the persons involved. That means that anything can be right or wrong in any situation, it's just who is doing the evaluation. The Biblical teaching of moral absolutes holds that some things are always Wrong, regardless of the situation, regardless of who is involved, and some things are likewise always Right.
If you never lie for any reason, then people will know that you never lie, that you can be trusted (unlike both Muslims and atheists, who teach that it's OK to lie sometimes) and maybe even that your God can be trusted. If you ever relax that rule, if you allow yourself some justifiable cause for lying -- even just once -- if you are willing to lie for any single reason, then you are willing to lie for any reason, and you cannot be trusted at all [Deut.18:22]. Ronald Reagan's famous "Trust, but verify" is not trust at all. It's what you must do when the other party is known to allow themselves to lie occasionally.
It is the nature of sin that innocent people get hurt. If you want to allow yourself the right to lie "when necessary," then God does not dare allow you into His Heaven, because you might lie to somebody there, and people would get hurt, and then it wouldn't be Heaven (for them). If you are uncomfortable now with the idea that it is never acceptable to lie for any reason, what makes you think you will like it any better in Heaven, where it is necessarily true?
When a cop lies to his prisoner, that prisoner might be tempted to give up his Constitutional rights, and possibly be convicted of a crime he did not commit. Maybe he did do it, but if you do not go through the legal process, you do not know that. If the cop already has sufficient evidence to know the alleged perp did it, then he needs no confession, and he doesn't need to lie to get it.
If you lie to a sick person about the fact that they are about to die, you deny them the opportunity to get right with God, possibly consigning their soul to Hell, and God will hold you responsible [Exek.3:18]. When a grocer or food processor lies to his customers about what happened to these veggies or that meat or what's in those cans, and if the customer is allergic to that substance he lied about, they unnecessarily get sick, and the liar is legally responsible. We have laws to protect people from that.
Bad things happen from lies. Lies never result in Good. Truth is a moral absolute. If you got to a place where it looks like a lie is the only way out, it's because you sinned (violated God's commands) in getting there. Repent and take your licking, and don't do it again.
Spies are an interesting (hard) problem. What we understand today about the need for espionage and how it is to be performed is probably inadequate. Moses sent spies into the Promised Land, but there was no need for them to lie. Try our thought experiment again: imagine yourself being approached by a foreign spy or a terrorist; do you want him to lie to you and tell you he has no bomb in his car or that his government has no plans to nuke your town? Wouldn't you rather know the truth, so you can get out of the way? Joshua sent spies to Jericho, but they told the truth; otherwise Rahab would not have been able to trust their promise of protection. Rahab lied to the city officials, but recall that she was a pagan in a vile profession; she was not a mature believer, but only starting to understand the Righteousness of God and His People. She is commended in the New Testament, not for her lie (which is not mentioned), but for her faith in sending the spies out another way.
Soldiers never need to lie in the performance of their lawful duties. It is unConstitutional in the USA to order a soldier to do something morally Wrong, and an effective defense in any court marshal (if it came to that) is the First Amendment and the Geneva Convention. Hitler's operatives were convicted of war crimes precisely because they obeyed orders and did not refuse to do what was Wrong. If and to the extent that lying is a necessary part of espionage, no government can compel you to be a spy against your conscience. They also wouldn't want to.
Bible smugglers are a form of espionage. If it were lawful to import Bibles, then we wouldn't need to call it "smuggling." But God's law always supersedes human laws [Acts 4:18]. Bible smugglers often report that they tell only the truth (but not always the whole truth) when crossing a border. "What do you have in the trunk?" one guard asked. "Bibles," he replied. "Good," the guard told him. "I also am a believer. Proceed."
Corrie ten Boom's family hid Jews in Holland during the war. They had a secret room accessible through a trap-door in their dining room floor, which they had a rug over, then the table on top of that. When the Gestapo came and demanded "Where are they?" Corrie's teenage sister Betsy nervously told the absolute truth, "They are under the table." Her family was horrified, but the Gestapo thought she was joking, and the Jews were saved. God is not obligated to always rescue us from difficult situations unharmed, but God always honors Truth and Righteousness.
According to the Apostle Paul, a Christian confesses Jesus as LORD and believes in his heart that God raised him from the dead [Rom.10:9]. If He is LORD, that means we accept what he says is True and Right, and do things the way He says to do them. Isn't that what you want to be doing? There are many things that God did not give us hard and fast rules for, and we have Christian liberty to do (or not do) those things as we serve Jesus Christ as LORD, but Truth is not one of them.
If I'm wrong, I want to submit to Scripture. Chapter and verse, please. email Tom Pittman if you see a logical flaw in this analysis, or if you really think there are no absolutes.
First draft 2005 February 3,
revised and greatly expanded 2017 April 18, minor edits 2017 June 27