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Morals and Emotions

The Christian worldview can account for ethical non-negotiables.

Robert Wright once argued that the human being is a "moral animal." That is, what sets us apart from other animals is a sophisticated sense of "oughtness" - of right and wrong. Human beings construct systems of morality and these guide the choices and actions of their daily lives.

But what is the source of this? Where does our sense of morality originate?

The current issue of Philosphy Now magazine features a symposium of ethicists discussing this subject, and I intend to engage their thinking a bit, here and in subsequent columns (Jan. 9, 2011).

Dr. Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, insists that morality is conditioned by the culture in which we are nurtured, as that culture shapes our emotions to respond one way or another ("Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response").

Because of this, and because cultures are so different, Dr. Prinz insists that all morals are relative, that is, that conflicting moral beliefs can be true because of the "different moral worldviews" existing from culture to culture.

Dr. Prinz writes, "With morals, unlike science, there is no well-recognized standard that can be used to test, confirm, or correct when disagreements arise." He's undoubtedly correct about that, that there is no "well-recognized" standard. But does that mean that no standard exists?

Dr. Prinz points to the role of emotions in moral formation, in particular, the use of negative emotions to shape our sense of right and wrong. If something we do causes us to feel guilt or shame, we learn that this is an action to avoid. When what others do causes us anger or disgust, we learn not to do that ourselves. Thus, "we decide someting is wrong by instrospecting our feelings."

As our cultural environment affirms certain kinds of actions and discourages others, we learn what to feel good about doing and what not to feel good about doing. In the process, an emotional foundation of morality is established that can then function to guide reasoned thinking about larger moral issues.

Dr. Prinz is certainly correct concerning the powerful role of emotions - the heart, as Scripture has it - in determining the kind of people we become. Solomon wrote that all the great issues of life flow from the heart (Prov. 4.23). Thus, it is important, for moral formation and much more, that we understand the nature of affections and how they work to make us one kind of person or another.

But Dr. Prinz's argument sounds at times as though he believes that whatever the existing morality may be in any culture, it must be what's right for that culture. He can't go quite that far, however, and is led to fall back on certain moral verities which, he assumes, everyone accepts - such as that we ought not do things which are deliberately pernicious or harmful to defenseless others.

But why we should accept these - simply because people do - is not explained. Scripture explains it, though, by insisting that our sense of moral oughtness is divinely inculcated. The works of God's Law are written on the hearts of all people (Rom. 2.14, 15). But this need not cause us to fear that there is no room for human freedom or for the application of divine law to particular circumstances in ways that might, at times, seem contrary. For example, when the Law of God instructs that runaway slaves should not be returned, yet Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, is Paul violating the Law of God (Deut. 23.15, 16; Philem. 12)? The answer, of course, is "No," but I can't go into the reason here (email me).

There is a ground for dialog with the moral relativist when it comes to debating the great moral issues of the day. Dr. Prinz wants us to consider the affections as central to moral reasoning, and this is not disagreeable to a Biblical worldview.

However, we shall want to press the good doctor a bit further concerning those non-negotiable ethical convictions which must, in the end, guide the emotions we adopt and the morality these emotions suggest. The Scriptures and the Christian worldview can account for these non-negotiables; moral relativism, on the other hand, cannot.

A standard for all ethical thinking and living exists: the Law of God. It is holy and righteous and good, and reflects the very character and way of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 7.12; Matt. 5.17-19). The fact that this standard is not "well recognized" is the fault neither of the Law of God nor the moral relativist. It is the fault of those who are instructed to meditate in that Law day and night (Ps. 1), walk in those commandments as Jesus did (1 Jn. 2.1-6), and build communities of love for God and neighbor on their foundation (Matt. 22.34-40), but who, instead, have failed to embrace the Law as they should and practice, in its place, a kind of "spiritual moral relativism" in the name of sentimental love and sanctimonious "tolerance."

We have met the enemy of Biblical ethics, in other words, and we are it.

Additional related texts: Proverbs 14.12; Ephesians 4.17-24; Psalm 8

A conversation starter: "Some people believe that moral choices, even when they conflict, can be equally valid and reliable. Do you think that's possible? On what grounds?"

T. M. Moore


T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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