When Conscience And Society Butt Heads

Morality seems to be quite a contentious subject among those who debate it.  People seem to not like it very much when someone with differing views on what is moral and what isn’t is perceived to be trying to force it on you or society as a whole.  Whether a person or a group’s vision of a moral standard should be employed on society as a whole depends on what makes the idea moral, immoral, or benign in the first place.  If morality is something we get to invent, then it’s just a matter of getting enough people on your side to foist it on the rest of us, because then by definition the majority determines what’s moral and what isn’t.  If it’s something we discover, however, then it’s only natural that it be implemented as a rule regardless of the public opinion.

This facet of the morality discussion is the foundation to entire debate on whose vision of morality is used.  Some skeptics of discovered morality will often claim that we find behaviors moral, immoral, or benign as the result of some social compact, that society has decided what’s right and what’s wrong.  But I think we reflect on this, even casually, it becomes obvious that we don’t find behaviors moral, immoral, or benign because they have been decided so.

A cursory reflection exposes that this runs contrary to what we know about ourselves.  Firstly, society is an abstract thing.  It’s nothing more than the label we assign to a group of individual people living in the same general area.  Each neighborhood is a little society in its own right, which is part of the larger society which is the town, which is part of the larger society which is the state or province, which is part of the larger society which is the nation, and so on.  This implies that groups of people, societies, have made conscious decisions that certain behaviors are right, wrong, or indifferent.

If this is true, that morality is decided, essentially we have been brainwashed into believing murder, rape, and theft are morally wrong, not that they are actually immoral in themselves, and society could have decided those behaviors were good.  I’m glad they didn’t.  In fact I don’t want to live in a society where morality is determined.  That means morality can be determined in the opposite direction.  What is now immoral: robbery, racism, drunk driving, etc. could be considered good things if enough people get together and decide on it.

But think about it yourself.  If morality is determined, then at least hypothetically you could convince yourself that rape is morally good.  Could you though?  Sure you might be able to concoct a rationale, or a justification, but that only shows that you know it’s wrong.  I mean could you make yourself actually believe that holding a woman down and tearing off her clothes all the while she is screaming, fighting, and pleading for you to stop is morally a good thing?  Or murder?

I think upon careful reflection one can see that morality is discovered.  We know raping children and killing people for no reason is wrong — not because we are told so.  We know it intuitively and we would find it repulsive to hear that someone believed they did good when committing those atrocities.  We would rightly wonder what is wrong with them that they don’t see what they did was horrible.  It’s more than a mere disagreement with society.

Of course there are grey lines.  Not because there is no correct answer, but because none of us like to believe we enjoy doing immoral things.  The fact that we all like to do things others might consider immoral and that muddies the moral waters.  We seek to justify and reason away some of our behaviors.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right or wrong answer, it simply means we must work a little harder to discover the truth and accept it when we do find it.  We might even have to convince some people they are mistaken.  I find myself in agreement with Atheist author Sam Harris on this, and I’m paraphrasing: In science when there isn’t agreement or a consensus we don’t throw up our hands and conclude there’s no right answer, we search until we discovet it, so why should we assume there’s no right answer when it comes to morality?  Personally, I think it’s worth arguing over.


  1. “It simply means we must work a little harder to discover the truth and accept it when we do find it.”
    First, I would have to wonder why Christians so rabidly oppose the truth about abortion, gay marriage, evolution, Biblical history, the power of prayer, and basically every other truth that opposes your preconceptions.
    But I can agree with the idea of working hard to ‘discover’ truth. You are assuming that there is some god-said-so fundamental law of nature to be ‘discovered’. I would respond you have some god-said-so morality that you decided and it’s different than what lots of others have decided after professing the same faith and reading the same book. The atheist alternative is not that we have some arbitrarily-decided morality but that we seek to ‘discover’ that morality which best improves the human condition (Sam Harris also explains this). That we disagree is part of the reality that we don’t have perfect information and that reality is a complicated place.
    If we can move past the religious approach of deciding what truth is and then ignoring any contradictory discovery, then I think we’ll be well on the way to discovering a morality we can all agree on.

  2. Jason,
    So let me be clear here. If the Nazi’s had won WWII and proceeded to show that their system of government/society was economically superior, then we would have to assume that genocide is morally acceptable, right? Roman society was a fantastic achievement. But they fed the descentors to lions. Was this morally acceptable? After all, the Roman culture was the most advanced and “superior” culture that they world had seen to-date.

    But I know, you don’t like wrestling with difficult questions. You tend to come on this web site and make sweeping pronouncements that are backed up with no evidence and then run away and hide when the tough questions arise. I suspect this time will be no different.

    I’d love for you to prove me wrong and stick around to defend your position that Christians are in denial about “abortion, gay marriage, evolution, Biblical history, the power of prayer”. The only one that you can defend with any evidence is evolution. And, as we’ve spoken before, I agree with you on that one. So do about 50% of Christians in the US. So lets drop that one.

  3. I think the American Bill of Rights and the first EU convention on Human Rights capture the true sense of morality. They balance the rights of the individual versus those of groups, versus those of society at large. They identify what is private behaviour from what is behaviour that impinges on the rights of another citizen.
    BTW, well written, well thought through and well substantiated. Your methodology and logical pattern in the development of your argument here flow beautifully.

  4. I’d be curious to know how other people define morality? I think that could lead to a good discussion.

  5. A agree with John’s premise, that morality is something we discover rather than invent or decide for ourselves. This means the morality, what is moral, already exists regardless of whether or not we exist.

  6. @ Jason,

    “First, I would have to wonder why Christians so rabidly oppose the truth about abortion, gay marriage, evolution, Biblical history, the power of prayer, and basically
    every other truth that opposes your preconceptions.”

    We don’t oppose truths in these areas, though for some there still exists some debate. Rather, you assume truths have been established, verified and are beyond dispute. Yet, I have seen no truths put forth by defenders of abortion or “gay marriage”. I have seen no incontrovertible facts that result in evolution being an absolute truth. There has been no evidence that Biblical history is wrong, that prayer has no power and I can’t imagine what else you have in mind that would cover the “every other truth that opposes” what you think is mere “preconception”.

    Instead, what you’ve done is provide an example of personal invention of the type that contradicts John’s premise.

  7. Interesting. How about the morning after pill? The fertilized egg hasn’t even implanted yet. Could that be considered moral?

    • Human life begins at fertilization, not implantation. So anything which intentionally takes the life of a human being at what ever stage without proper justification is immoral.

  8. Interesting, but would fertilization time then not allow for the morning after pill?

  9. I recommend What We Can’t Not Know. In that book the author argues that natural law is written on the hearts of everyone and we cannot get away from it. We may be able to ignore it for a while but we can never get rid of our consciences.

  10. That moral principles are there to be discovered begs the next question: who established the moral law? That there is a moral law is evidence that there is a God.

  11. But how can we define morality? How would you word it?

  12. Most contraceptions work two ways. First they attempt to prevent fertilization. I do not believe that preventing fertilization is in and of itself an immoral act. (This is where I differ from Catholics in my belief. But that doesn’t mean Catholics are not Christians.)

    Secondly, contraception attempts to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. This is the killing of a child. It is evil but many women do not realize that regular, every day contraception can cause an abortion.

  13. 50% of pregnancies end before the 4th week due to natural causes, we could call it “natural abortion”. How do you reconcile that with a god who allegedly promotes “sanctity of life”? Wouldn’t this make him the biggest abortionist of all time?

  14. @ Pink,

    You are not talking about “natural abortion”, a term invented by abortion rights proponents and atheists looking to make trouble. You’re talking about death by natural causes. You are suggesting that defects in nature, as in those that compel a woman’s body to reject an embryo, indicate some defect in God. But that is a result in never having studied Scripture. Defects in nature are a result of the Fall of Man. Scientific? Of course not. But if YOU are once again going to bring up religion, you should at least not conflate the two in order to make your lame point. You insist that we keep God and science separate in our discussions (which we do), while you continue to hold God accountable for every negative in life that comes up.

    Abortion is not a natural process in any way, shape or form. Abortion is always an act inflicted upon one person by another.

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