One of the best movie lines ever was in The Princess Bride when Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) continues to say the word “inconceivable” repeatedly in the wrong context and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) tells him “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Even as I type the statement, it is hard for me not to snicker as I remember just how funny that line was in the movie.
Sadly, as funny as that is, we see this quite frequently today where people say things before thinking through what they are actually saying and what their words genuinely mean. Let’s take a look at two words that are favorites for people to throw around today, and yet they may not have an idea of what they truly mean.
Is there an oughtness?
Unless you have studied philosophy and ethics, you might be thinking what does “oughtness” even mean. Oughtness is a concept in ethics that represents an obligatory moral duty or action. In other words, it describes an obligation that if someone didn’t perform, they would be morally wrong. It is claiming that something ought to be a certain way. The word “should,” which is a universal expression, is a synonym and, therefore, is making the same claim.
Today our media, social media, universities, and everyday lives are filled with sounds of people using the words “should” and “ought.” You should do this, and you ought not to say that. The cacophony of voices can be not just deafening, but even confusing. Its little wonder to the polarization of our society on what should, should not, ought and ought not to be done.
But what is being said? To say something ought to be a certain way is to claim a standard that is ontic (real and exists) and epistemic (can be known).
Getting straight to the point; take for example torturing someone for entertainment. Ok, I know this got vile and really quick and I apologize; however, we live in a society were you actually have people questioning whether or not the murder of children outside the womb is morally wrong. To look at the logical merits of this argument I want to use an example that is, or at least I pray, universally detestable. Regarding my other claim, yes, the abortion discussion has gone beyond the womb and I’ve provided a reference below to the article.
Now let’s push this a little further, and I apologize again, a little darker, by saying, torturing children for entertainment to truly drive home the point here. Now everyone knows that is morally wrong. Thus, the moral standard exists and is knowable in a universal sense, or is it?
The Monkey Wrench of Post-Modernity
Some might say that we live in a post-modern or post-truth society. That’s only partially accurate. But before we debate that issue, let’s discuss what this even means.
Post-modernity describes a societal state that is after modernity. Modernity was the societal state birthed during the Enlightenment era and characterized by empiricism (knowing things by and through our sense experiences). In its simplest terms, post-modernism is a departure from what it means to know something as objectively true and appeals to an individual’s perception of what is real. It is from this ideology that we get that incredibly confusing phrase “your truth.”
But do we live in a post-modern society? Of course not! Take the most ardent proclaimer of relative truth, offer them coffee, and then offer to sweeten the coffee with minced garlic. When they protest that garlic won’t sweeten their coffee, simply reply, “well, that maybe your truth, but I have a different perception.” I can’t even imagine coffee with minced garlic, but that’s beside the point.
We don’t fully live in a post-modern society. We are still living in a modernistic framework when it comes to our physical environments. However, when it comes to topics of religion and morality, we see the script quickly flipped to a relativistic ideology. Just as the relativist would protest to a fresh garlic coffee brew, tell them something is morally wrong, and they’ll quickly provide a dissertation on how we shouldn’t (there’s that word again) push our beliefs on someone and morality is relative to the individual. Furthermore, we can’t know what is objectively right and wrong if there is even such a thing.
Planting Our Feet Firmly in Midair
We started our discussion on oughtness by describing the ontic (real and exists) and epistemic (can be known) moral standard that torturing children for entertainment is wrong. If this is true, there must be a foundation for this standard to rest. Something we can point to that is objectively true. Something objectively true is real, regardless of anyone’s opinion. Morality to be objective means it must transcend (be above) a persons preference, emotion, or idea.
However, if post-modern morality is valid, that means the foundation of the moral standard claim that torturing children for entertainment is wrong rests within the perception of individuals. The post-modernist is committed to the oughtness (ought not to be) of this situation merely being a matter of one’s opinion and thus subjective. It is subjective because another person could have a differing opinion, and to say one view is any more correct than the other is impossible. Post-modernism has reduced moral claims to the equivalence of one’s preferred flavor of ice cream!
So, where does this leave our moral standard that torturing children for entertainment is wrong? What is our foundation? It rests on opinion, you say?
It would appear our standard for morality is planted in midair. Not quite the icon of moral stability.
Ok, let’s see how this works out for us.
Going for a Test Drive
Would you ever purchase a used car without taking it for a test drive? You would want to make sure that the car was reliable, safe to drive, and operated as expected. You might even take the vehicle to a service technician to run diagnostics on the computer and check under the hood for any signs of deferred maintenance.
Likewise, let us not miss the opportunity to take moral relativism for a test drive and see how well it performs on the open roads of reality.
One evening after having a nice meal I tell you I would like you to partner with me on a business idea. I tell you, “Hey, let’s take that idea from the book The Hunger Games and make that an actual thing.” I’ve got the money, but I need someone like you to be the brains of the operation to get this venture off the ground.
You naturally object on the moral grounds that torturing children for entertainment is wrong!
Just in case you didn’t see the movie or read the book, it is a science fiction story about a society split into districts where each year they offer up two of their children to enter into an area and fight to the death against children from other districts. All the while, the rich and privileged enjoy the Hunger Games as their annual sporting entertainment. Now back to our discussion.
“But, hold on now,” I explain, “This could make a huge splash and be incredibly profitable for potential sponsors down the road and us.”
You explain further that I shouldn’t (again with that word) pursue this venture because obviously everyone knows this is a vile thing to do.
Well, now we have a problem because I stand to make a tremendous amount of money from setting up an arena, catering to the morally depraved who would pay handsomely to watch the next Toddler Gladiatorial Games, and this comes down to a difference of opinion; your mere perception of how something ought not to be. Well, who is going to let a person’s opinion stand in the way of a fortune?
And by the way, who are you to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do? Didn’t we cover earlier that morality is a matter of opinion, and we shouldn’t push our morality onto others? With that thinking in mind, let’s now explore a couple of examples where this world has had to endure the “evils” of someone pushing their morality on to others.
Back in the 1800s, the Southern United States was on its way to being a wealthy, world leader in agriculture. It had a highly efficient workforce of slaves that required nothing more than a few meals and the motivation of a whip. Then, along came these people from the north, saying that this system of slavery was some sort of moral evil. They even went to war, sending their soldiers down to slaughter the businessmen of the south over their perception and heinous desire to impose their moral standard on others.
Now we would like to believe history only improved, but less than 70 years later, that same country that abolished its slave trade was at it again pushing its moral agenda. This time though, it was expanding its reach by going to war with Germany because they, the U.S.A., thought it was wrong for Germany to invade other sovereign nations in an attempt to be a dominant power in the world. If that isn’t ridiculous enough, the United States discovered Germany had been killing Jewish people in ovens, gas chambers and firing lines, along with performing torturous experiments on them. The U.S.A. wanted to hold these people accountable for these so-called atrocities against humanity. How dare they be so pious and self-righteous to think they can push their morality on others. After all, the only thing either of these two societies did wrong was having a different opinion of their own.
Disembark the Crazy Train
So, now that our little test drive of relativism is over with let’s discuss what we’ve discovered.
On the view of post-modern morality, moral values are nothing more than one’s own opinion. If they are mere opinions, then someone holding to this ideology has no objective foundation to say something should, should not, ought or ought not to be a certain way.
Pressing this a little further means that when two opposing opinions square off against one another, there is no ability to determine which view is right and which one is wrong. There’s not even a reason to support arguing about it and why would one do so anyway because opinions are just that, opinions. It would be like us fighting over the idea that Cookies and Cream ice cream is better than Rocky Road.
However, we also learned that for society to work as a cohesive structure, this view of morality is simply unlivable in a consistent manner. Without an objective framework for morals, we will find ourselves in situations where opinions and ideologies continually clash against each other in an endless competition of who can shout the loudest with there never being resolution, much less even progress. It sounds a lot like what we see today. One can see that the only possibility for resolution, in this system, is for the more dominant side of a debate to overpower the weaker ones.
Many people in this nation promote a “find your truth” morality, a “you do you” and an “as long as you don’t hurt anyone” ethic. And yet those very same people will be some of the first people to purchase their ride on the Crazy Train to support the political agenda and social justice movement of their choice, all the while shouting how things should, should not, ought or ought not to be.
There is only one way that morality can be grounded, objective, and absolute. There is one foundation where morality can transcend beyond opinion. Moral values, when grounded in a maximally great transcendent being that is the very standard of goodness, is the only option. God is the single being that measures up to the requirement.