Monday, December 30, 2013

On What Basis Should We Make Moral Judgments?

       Kathleen Parker's recent editorial ( is an excellent example of what passes for ethical discussion these days.  Begin with a collection of ad hominem attacks, mix in another logical fallacy or two, and blend with a red-faced self-righteousness.  Parker is an award-winning columnist and this column may not be a good example of her work.  It is, however, a good example of the kind of moral discussion we are treated to on radio, television, and in print.
       Ad hominem attacks  against Phil Robertson include "white, fundamentalist, Bible-thumping yahoo who missed the civil rights movement and the New England Enlightenment."  She indicts a large section of Christendom as "fundamentalist Christians for whom biblical literalism is a virtue... people who find refuge in the toxic swamp of moral certitude."
       Parker goes on to assume the moral superiority of relativism, but offers no evidence.  Phil Robertson is not allowed to speak "outside his wheelhouse" and the church can be of no value in discussing moral values because its opinions are divided. 
       The underlying question is this:  On what basis should we make moral judgments?  Parker discards the very idea of moral certitude as toxic, or the idea that scripture could be used as a moral standard for society.
       Relativism, however, is fraught with its own vulnerabilities.  Morality by majority vote has proven historically catastrophic.  It is a pendulum swing- human rights today will be different tomorrow.  Morality by an educated or governmental elite is also a recipe for tyranny (whatever is legal is moral).  Yet, skepticism over the possibility of agreement is no good either.  Wouldn't that result in a moral freefall?
       It's time to begin the real discussion instead of shouting past each other.  And until we can talk about these things in a rational way, perhaps we should gather up the fragments of biblical morality and western tradition and try to stop the decay.