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Chuck McKnight, AiG–U.S., explains why naturalistic ethical systems fail.
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:20, ESV)
Today’s big question: why do naturalistic ethics fail?
We previously examined the Bible as our ultimate standard for morality. Clearly for Christians this must be the case. However, those who do not believe in God claim a number of different “ethical” systems as their standards. In this and the next devotional, we will examine seven of the most common naturalistic systems to see what they believe and to understand why they ultimately fail.
Behaviorism says that we are simply the product of our upbringing and environment. All our actions are preconditioned, and we really have no control over what we do. There is no such thing as right or wrong; we just do what we do because it’s what we do. However, behaviorism is based on the unproven idea of determinism. And even if it were true, this would only a description of what happens, not a prescriptive system of ethics.
Cultural relativism suggests that ethical norms are established by the surrounding culture. Right and wrong are determined based on whether or not the culture would approve of a given action. This may sound like a reasonable approach, but what happens when different cultures with different ethics interact? How can we determine which culture should be followed? Furthermore, cultural opinion is constantly changing. Few today approve of harsh slavery, yet that was the cultural norm not long ago.
Ethical Egoism is the belief that everything we do should be for our own best interest. It even goes so far as to say that any act of altruism is ethically wrong and damaging. This claims that helping others is illogical when we should be our own primary concern. No doubt this system holds some appeal to those who are capable of taking care of themselves, but what of those who are disabled or otherwise in need of assistance? Are they to simply be disregarded as casualties of the “ethical” system?
Utilitarianism is essentially the reverse of ethical egoism. Rather than doing everything for our own best interests, we should do that which provides the most utility (or happiness) for the greatest number of people. It sounds more appealing, but there are problems that come with this oversimplification of right and wrong. We can only estimate the results of our actions, and there is no scale for measuring utility. So there is no way to guarantee that we choose the best actions. Furthermore, the needs of the minority are ignored. The only people who matter are those who fit into the “greatest number” category.
In the next devotional, we will look at three more examples: virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, and situation ethics.
Today’s big idea: all naturalistic systems of ethics are doomed to fail.
What to pray: thank God that we have His Word and His Spirit to guide us in our lives.