Moral Absolutes

(Working Draft)

[I'm leaving this page up, because there are ideas here that didn't make it into the finished essay]

It is 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. 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 follows the absolutes they reject for themselves.

Let's be specific.

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.

Who wants to be treated unjustly? You didn't do anything wrong, but they throw you in jail anyway, just for fun. 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.

There is probably more to say on this topic, but this is a start.

Please let me know if you see a logical flaw in this analysis, or if you really think there are no absolutes.

Tom Pittman

First draft 2005 February 3

Moral Absolutes vs Situation Ethics: Truth

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, itís 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 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.

Truth is a moral absolute. Not only "It is impossible for God to lie" [Heb.6:18] and the Devil "is the father of all lies" [John 8:44] and there will be no liars in Heaven [Rev.21:8], but also because Truth is a moral absolute. In the Bible God never commands anyone to lie, but rather the reverse. Sometimes the Bible tells about people lying (because the Bible itself never lies), but they are not commended nor praised by God for that sin.

Thought Experiment: When do you personally want to be lied to? Not, when do you want to tell a lie, because you have a conflict of interest in that question, but when do you want your doctor or your banker or your grocer or your policeman or your spouse or child to lie to you? Remember, itís not a lie to refuse to answer (Jesus did that), except under oath: Jesus did not refuse to answer in court under oath [Matt.26:64], but he did refuse to tell the disciples when the Second Coming would be. If nobody ever wants to be lied to, then truth must be a moral absolute. Notice that this analysis is based on the Golden Rule, not any particular Bible teaching. It is absolute, even over the Bible. The Golden Rule itself is a moral absolute: it is also in the Code of Hammurabi and early Egyptian writings, both before Moses, and in many other places as a moral universal in addition to the Law of Moses and in the teachings of both Jesus and Paul.

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 itís 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 ó even just once ó 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 Reaganís famous "Trust, but verify" is not trust at all. Itís 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 wouldnít 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 doesnít 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 whatís 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, itís because you sinned (violated Godís commands) in getting there. Repent and take your licking, and donít 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? Wouldnít 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. Hitlerís 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 wouldnít want to.

Bible smugglers are a form of espionage. If it were lawful to import Bibles, then we wouldnít need to call it "smuggling." But Godís law always supercedes 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 Boomís family hid Jews in Holland during the war. They had a secret room accessible through a trap-door in their dining room, which they had a rug over, then the table on top of that. When the Gestapo came and demanded "Where are they?" Corrieís 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. Isnít 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 Iím wrong, I want to submit to Scripture. Chapter and verse, please.

Tom Pittman
2014 May 24

[One episode in a possible series on "Inerrancy Solves Hard Problems"]
[Soon also to be a chapter in my book God of Truth]


(none yet)


I don't know which of several essays in this topic he was referring to (and he didn't say), but a couple weeks ago "Jack" (not his real name, which he did not disclose, nor even his email handle) came at me trying to disprove my stand on moral absolutes. He was somewhat repetitive -- I doubt he was doing his own thinking, just repeating something he read on some atheist website without even thinking about how I replied -- so I can limit my quotation of his remarks to a few representative phrases without violating the "Fair Use" clause of the Copyright law.
[Even if] there *are* moral absolutes, they are unknowable.

He supported this claim with an example,

If you have a neighbor [who] can buy a box of firecrackers and blow them in front of their [house]... If you have a law, established by the group of people who live in your neighborhood that says you cannot do that, then you might get a fine.

It is the group of people who establish the morals of the group.

Me, I've never seen nor heard of any property or action of a "group of people" that is not an aggregation (sum or average) of one or more individual persons in that group, or perhaps of some persons not members of that group presuming to speak for them, possibly without their permission. I said so, and he didn't answer that point.

If you have a law, that law is almost never established by the whole group of people who live under the law, but generally by a small minority of designated lawmakers or a single despot (same thing, quantity one) who may or may not legislate their own personal values against the majority -- for example, the present law of the USA which condones and mandates the murder of very young children, which was made the law of the land in 1973 by seven unelected judges, despite that more than half of the American citizens oppose it and a substantial majority don't want to be forced to pay for it from tax funds (as was the implicit policy of the President who left office last month, and also the explicit policy of the woman the voters chose not to elect as his successor).

Except in this muddy example, Jack did not equate the law with "the morals of the group." I asked for a clarification, but he declined to respond to that request, and well he should. If the guy shooting off firecrackers in front of his house is the mayor's son, or the chief of police, or it's the Fourth of July, he will get no fine at all. This isn't about group morals, and (I'm sure Jack picked this example for its obvious ambiguity) it's hardly a candidate for moral absolutes at all.

And what about conflicting laws, as is often the case with environmental law? Which one is "moral" and which is not? Does each person make up their own mind about which laws are binding? If so, then Jack has nullified his claim that morals "are intrinsic to society." He did not reply, not to clarify whether the laws of the land constitute "the morals of the group," nor to offer some other clear definition of what "the morals of the group" might be nor how they can be determined. Yet everybody knows very well what is moral and what is immoral. How so? Jack did not reply. He cannot even define "moral," let alone say where it comes from.

Or maybe he did not reply because I repeated my definition of moral absolutes (essentially adapted from websites like RationalWiki, although their discussion, written from a moral relativist perspective, is rather muddy) which are obligations binding on all persons everywhere without exception. Most opponents of moral absolutes try to inject silly examples like Jack's firecrackers, as if the fact that some moral values (however defined) are obviously not absolute implies that none are. There are actually three possible cases:

1. There can be no such thing as moral absolutes (the atheist position argued by Jack),

2. All moral values are moral abolutes (which nobody in their right mind would argue, Islamic Jihadists obviously excepted, but then most of us would also exclude them from being "in their right mind" ;-) and

3.  Some moral values are moral absolutes, and some are not (the classic Christian position, and mine also).

If such a thing as a moral absolute can exist at all, then it necessarily can and must be known, from the definition of a moral absolute: It cannot be justly binding on all persons everywhere if it is impossible for them to know what it is. If they choose not to know about it, they are still obligated to find out and then to submit, but that's their choice. I made this point in my first reply to Jack, but he is so convinced by Case #1 above, that he cannot imagine how anybody can know about that which cannot exist. Essentially he argued a logical tautology (False implies anything) which is meaningless in the denial of the premise.

But mostly I think he did not reply because I offered him not my own opinion -- which in the face of moral absolutes is irrelevant -- but a concrete experiment he could run to see if there is such a thing as a moral absolute: Find somebody who truly wants to be lied to. I want to hear about it.

I even went so far as to invite Jack to contribute to my ongoing experiment. Just prove to me that Jack himself does not believe that Truth is a moral absolute, and my whole argument collapses! Jack did not reply. Why is that? I told him openly what he is up against, in the form of three propositions, each of which might be true or false, and what the implications of each are:

Given the definition of a moral absolute as an obligation binding on all sentient persons without exception, and therefore knowable by all persons as an obligation binding on each of them individually and personally,

A. Either Jack is trying to persuade me that there is no such thing as a moral absolute (the affirmative), or else he had no such persuasive purpose in mind (the denial).

I perceived the affirmative, so if otherwise, he failed in his communication. I suggested he try again. Until then, I proceed with the assumption of the affirmative.

B. Either there exists an objective external Reality, which Jack and I can (separately) observe and formulate propositions about, and can evaluate for conformance to that Reality propositions formulated by other persons, or else there is no such external objective Reality, and Jack is a figment of my imagination, and I of his.

The denial of #B is commonly called "insanity" and I do not believe Jack is insane. But if there is no objective Reality, then in my imaginative version, Jack agreed without reservation to everything I say about moral absolutes, which is a denial of #A. Therefore, for purposes of this discussion, we can consider #B affirmed (true) whenever #A is true.

C. Either in that external Reality Jack can perceive (know about) at least one obligation binding on all persons everywhere without exception (and necessarily by definition, those obligation(s) are knowable by all sentient persons generally, and in particular by Jack himself), or else there cannot be any moral absolutes at all knowable by Jack.

There is a third possibility, that there might be moral absolutes in that external Reality, but Jack has not yet discovered any. However, this option is unstable. If there are moral absolutes, then all persons everywhere have a moral obligation to investigate and learn what they are (from the definition of moral absolute), which is itself a moral absolute (again from the definition of moral absolute), thereby forcing Jack into the affirmation of #C.

If there are no moral absolutes (the denial of #C), then Truth is not a moral absolute, which means Jack cannot know that he knows anything is true, and therefore he cannot know anything at all about that external Reality, which is a denial of #B. Therefore we are again forced into the affirmation of #C or the denial of #A.

Furthermore, if there are no moral absolutes, then Jack is under no obligation to tell me the truth (because there is no such thing as truth), and I must assume Jack is saying only what serves his own selfish interests without respect to its truth value, which is a different and independent denial of #A.

Therefore, if Jack is reasonably attempting to persuade me of anything at all, it must be because he believes in at least one moral absolute, namely Truth. There is no personal benefit that would accrue to Jack by persuading me to agree with him that there are no knowable moral absolutes, if in fact there are none: I have my opinions and he has his, and that's the end of it. But that's not how he acted. Even if Jack is mistaken about what happens to be true, he nonetheless believes Truth is a moral obligation binding on both himself and me, and therefore he quite reasonably made the legitimate attempt to persuade me of it. Absent personal benefit, the attempt at persuasion proves that Jack accepts Truth as a moral absolute.

I'm still waiting for him to show me otherwise.

"Society writ large" (Jack's phrase for the basis of morals) doesn't go there, I'm asking about Jack's own individual moral values, not those of some hypothetical group that may or may not be able to act and have values independent of the individuals in that group.

I have never to my knowledge encountered anybody who truly does not believe in (some) moral absolutes, and I aim to prove the universality of my claim by induction, starting with Jack. If he (or anybody else) can demonstrate that he or you believe -- that is, if you act consistently with the belief -- that no moral absolutes exist, or if you can demonstrate that (even if they did exist) you cannot know any*, then my thesis is disproved. It's an audacious quest I have embarked on, but I think I will succeed. So far, I am succeeding.

I'm still waiting.

Jack finally conceded the argument, in a back-handed sort of way:

I don't believe that there are "Moral Absolutes" which are [obligation binding on all persons everywhere].
That means Truth is not an obligation I can depend on him holding to, nor can he depend on it being binding on me. I told him that the above statement is a lie, and I correctly inferred it to mean that he accepts that God has the right to throw him into Hell for lying to me. No rational person would agree to that interpretation, but there it is! Either Truth is binding on him and me both (because it's a moral absolute), or else he has no valid control over what I say about what he said.

Some Christians who accept the basic concept of moral absolutes (obviously not Jack, but I've heard this from several people) want to define a moral absolute as "whatever God decrees" but that has logical problems. On the surface it looks reasonable and simple, and it solves the problem of God commanding the slaughter of the Canaanites (man, woman and child), but it denies the essential Righteousness of God by granting Him the right to make capricious rules about what constitutes Good and Evil.

I find at least two proof-texts agains that position, the first when Abraham argues against God on behalf of Sodom (where his nephew Lot lived) "Shall not the Judge of the whole world do justly?" [Gen.18:25] God accepted Abraham's argument, which is nonsense unless God Himself is subject to the moral absolute of Justice. If God alone defines what is just and what is unjust, then Abe is out of line in making any argument at all. Paul echoes that sentiment in his epistle to Rome, where "the Wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness," so that people "are without excuse." Why? Because they can figure out Right and Wrong without God even telling them anything, just look at what they condemn in other people. That's my argument for moral absolutes, what everybody condemns other people for. Calvinists have God condemning people before they were ever born, but I have a higher opinion of God's righteousness, it's something I can see in nature (if I choose to look) even without God's special revelation in Scripture: God justly condemns the sinner to Hell because he chose to sin. Having made that choice, the sinner cannot escape God's justice apart from the Grace of God, but that's a separate moral absolute, different from Justice (which with Truth I infer from from Matt.23:23).

Then there is the fact (mentioned several times) that "God cannot lie." Why does the Apostle tell us that, unless Truth is a moral absolute binding even on God Himself? If it's just an arbitrary rule He laid on His Creation but is not binding on Himself, then that claim is a lie, He could lie if He wanted to, but chooses not to. But that's an argument between Christians, which if we get it wrong, the atheists might rightly resent our God as capricious, but nevertheless cannot logically refuse the First Commandment to obey God regardless, because He is God. That much they can know from nature, because Darwin's hypothesis is disproved.

It's really interesting that God apparently does not judge people sinners because He said so (although He could, if He so chose), but because they violated their own standards of conduct. Their own standards are formed by moral absolutes, by which they "accuse or defend" other people [Rom.2:15]. Jesus explained that we must give an account on Judgment Day of even our idle words, because He will judge us by our own accounting [Mat.12:37].

God can (and did!) speak the universe into existence, but He does not -- and cannot, for God cannot lie -- speak falsehood into truth. It is not true because God said so, God said so because it is true.

Moral absolutes are not so because God commands them -- and I can identify four such absolutes in the teaching of Jesus: Justice, Truth, and Mercy, which might be only instances of The Second Great Commandment -- God commands them because they are moral absolutes. Otherwise they would not be absolute, but merely contingent on God's whim. But I do not argue here on the basis of God at all...

Tom Pittman
Rev. 2017 March 16

* Proof of a negative is very difficult. We have mathematical proofs of a few negatives, for example, we can prove that you cannot know if an arbitrary computer program is correct (that is, bug-free: see the Halting Problem), but usually you must search an impossibly large universe to achieve your proof. I don't think Jack has done that, nor can anybody, but I could be persuaded ;-)