The Edifier

West Allen Church of Christ

The Edifier Index

False Standard of Right and Wrong

David McClister

For Christians, the matter of right and wrong is straightforward. Righteousness and evil are determined by what God says they are in His word. Things that are not identified as explicitly right or wrong may still have moral overtones depending on how they are done. In such matters Christians are endowed with a responsible freedom to determine in their lives, based on the character of Jesus that is formed within them, how they should act.

For unbelievers it is quite a different matter (at least in their way of thinking). If one rejects the moral authority of God, then there is no objective way to determine what is morally right or wrong. It is this very rejection of God's moral authority that has led to the adoption of several different moral standards in our culture. Some of them are:

1. Immediate physical harm. That is, "I'm not hurting anyone." This particular line of reasoning has been applied to many different practices of a non-violent nature. Recently the evening news reported about a criminal wanted for forgery (he has been cashing other people's checks) who sent a video tape of himself to the police, taunting them and challenging them to catch him. In his comments he said that the police should not try to catch him because what he does has not hurt anyone. Instead he urged that the police should work on apprehending violent criminals.

Maybe cashing someone else's check does not cause immediate physical harm to the victim, but it certainly may result in later physical hardship and suffering (because the victim now has no money for groceries or rent). But that is not the main point anyway. The main point is that all sin does harm to the sinner (Ezek 18:4; Rom 6:23), and sins against others can produce many kinds of suffering other than physical harm. To limit what is morally wrong to that which produces physical or bodily harm only is surely a na´ve, if not downright carnal, way of looking at the matter. There are many forms of harm against another person, and physical or bodily harm is only one of them. There is also emotional harm and psychological (mental) harm, the effects of which can be extremely devastating and can even make life worse than if the victim had suffered physical injury. Sin against another always hurts that person in some way. For example, the effect of gossip or lying against someone can be just as hurtful, or even more, as if the sinner had done physical violence against them.

In the Old Testament God's moral wisdom is evident. For many offences the penalty was direct retribution in kind. "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" (Exod 21:24f). Many people who use the defenses cited above do so in order to justify their engagement in activity that is harmful to others, but they certainly would not want others doing the same thing to them because they know indeed that it would be harmful! They steal and claim "no one got hurt," but they certainly do not want someone stealing from them! They lie, but they do not appreciate it when "everyone else" lies to them or about them! Perhaps if the situations were reversed, the sinner would see just how harmful his activity really is - that was exactly the point of that Old Testament law.

2. The number of people who do it. That is, "Everyone else does it." This is also a commonly-cited justification for moral offence. It has become one of the chief defense of the use of certain illegal drugs (especially marijuana) and for "underage" drinking. Those who say this seem to be under the impression that if enough people do something, then it is acceptable behavior. That is, what is acceptable and unacceptable morally is determined by society (or even a smaller group of peers). Related to this "everyone does it" defense is the idea that some offences are not commonly punished. So if enough people do it and get away with it, then it becomes acceptable according to this way of thinking. So they say "I'm just doing what everyone else is doing." They are going with the flow of society, as it were, going with the majority.

But clearly this is poor reasoning. If the majority of people in society became murderers, would that make it morally right? If the majority of people became child molesters, would that turn a heinous crime into acceptable behavior? What about bank robbery? Rape? Arson? No one would want to live in such a society, most of all those who use the "everyone does it" defense for their own sin. Furthermore, majorities can be oppressive to those in the minority, and if the tables were turned, those who use such a defense would complain loudly (which is what those who are in any minority are often forced to do). What these people really mean is "it is acceptable because many other people do it to someone else." But let that same person become the victim of such reasoning and he will change his tune to be sure.

3. Time. That is, "Things are different now." This is only a variant of the "everyone does it" defense noted above. There may have been a time when a certain behavior was unacceptable, but now a significant number, or even the majority, of people have changed their minds on it, and what was unacceptable to a majority of people in time past is now acceptable to the majority today (or so the idea goes).

According to this way of thinking, there is no one moral standard that is valid for all time. In this viewpoint morality is constantly changing, depending on the whims of society. Perhaps those who advocate this idea have not stopped to think of just how chaotic such a moral standard can be. All it can do is create confusion and frustration. If what is wrong today is right tomorrow, then how can we teach our children anything about right or wrong? What we teach them today will not be true tomorrow! And so how can they - or anyone - expect to know how to live?

4. Age and consent. That is, "It is something done among consenting adults." This is yet another variant of the "everyone does it" defense noted above. It has especially become the defense for homosexuality. What makes this defense unique is that it claims to be morally higher because 1) it supposes that adults are sufficiently informed of the risk for serious harm in such actions and 2) that since they do such things voluntarily, and they know its potential for harm, then any harm that comes from it does not make them a victim, and where there is no victim there is no moral offense.

Such a stance makes every man a law unto himself, and we all know where that leads: utter anarchy and chaos (Judges 17:6ff). It also fails to understand that there are things that are wrong whether we knowingly consent to do them or not. My approval of a deed, or my consent to involvement in it, does not make it right.

None of these defenses are valid. They are nothing other than exercises in selfish self-justification in the face of obvious immorality. Let us remember what Paul said: "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption" ( Gal 6:7).