The Morality Conundrum

I recently read a very interesting book titled; Science and the Good. It was written by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, both of whom are professors at the University of Virginia. It is a well-researched book as they examine the quest by science to find a foundation for morality. They were trying to determine if science could solve the enduring moral problems and fashion for modern people a good and peaceful society.

The authors examined the various ways the sciences have sought to discover a universal moral code. They said, “Surely science can do for morality what it does for chemistry and physics – resolve differences with empirical evidence. In short, can science demonstrate what morality is and how we should live?”

The answer seems to be – no. As wonderful as science is, it is not a teacher of morals. Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should or should not value the enslavement of Africans. It cannot tell us scientifically why we should or should not value the purging of Jews and the mentally disabled. Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should permit or not permit gay marriage.

What Hunter and Nedelisky have concluded is that:

The story of the quest for a scientific foundation for morality persuades us that the answer is no. At least, science has not gotten us there yet, there are no promising signs that it might, and no plausible solutions to the challenges this project faces.

Science has taught us many things. Applied to the problems of human existence, it has brought about immeasurable benefits in health, longevity, comfort, ease of living, and security. A central part of its achievement is the immense practicality of its method and findings. It urges us to credit, and to build upon, only what can be demonstrated for all to see.

Yet for all that science has taught us and for all the good that it has brought about, it has clearly not provided anything like a solution to the problem of morality – no way of resolving moral disagreement with empirical methods.

So where does that leave us? Who determines what is right and wrong, good or evil? Who has the authority and the wisdom to help us create a “good society”?

Historically, in our country, we have looked to the Judeo-Christian tradition, that is the God of the Bible, as our source of moral authority. It is not surprising that since we as a nation have become more godless, we have morally lost our way. We have become morally confused.

The great philosopher Peter Kreeft, a professor at Boston College and the author of over 50 books had this to say about morality:

No society has ever survived or will ever survive without morality and no morality has ever survived without a transcendent source.

C.S. Lewis said it even more simply,

Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we will surely perish.

Lewis and Kreeft are both saying we cannot live without moral boundaries. They both recognized that if we remove God’s boundaries, it will eventually lead to the destruction of our society. Furthermore, if we don’t believe nor grasp the fact that God has dispensed his divine moral law to the world, then the depravity of man, the sinfulness of man makes no sense. Therefore, the heart of the Christian message—the gospel message— becomes irrelevant and inconvenient.

Unfortunately, this is what has happened in the lives of so many people in our world today. These poor souls for whom there is no moral certainty are bound to muddle through life without ever experiencing true liberty and peace, which is ultimately found in God’s law.

Dr. Robert Coles is a very unusual man. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, having written more than eighty books. He is also a prominent child psychiatrist and a literature professor at Harvard. He teaches literature to business majors instead of psychiatry to medical students, and the reason he gives—“We have systems here to explain everything, except how to live.” Coles has spent his lifetime interviewing and listening to people. What has he learned about the human condition?

Nothing I have discovered about the makeup of human beings contradicts in any way what I learn from the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, and from the book of Ecclesiastes, and from Jesus and the lives of those he touched. Anything I can say as a result of my research into human behavior is a mere footnote to those lives in the Old and New Testaments.

I have known human beings who, in the face of unbearable daily stress, respond with resilience, even nobility. And I have known others who live in a comfortable, even luxurious environment and yet seem utterly lost. We have both sides in all of us, and that’s what the Bible says, isn’t it?

Coles says he receives a great deal of criticism from those in his profession, because he speaks of human nature in terms of good and evil, light and darkness, self-destruction and redemption. He says, “They want some new theory, I suppose. But my research merely verifies what the Bible has said all along about human beings.”


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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