"Free-Floating Morality"

In many cases I have put on my philosophy-professor hat in order to be a good pastor to people. A young couple once came to me for some spiritual direction. They ‘didn’t believe in much of anything’ they said. How could they begin to figure out if there was even a God? I asked them to tell me about something they felt was really wrong. The woman immediately spoke out against practices that marginalized women. I said I agreed with her fully since I was a Christian who believed God made all human beings, but I was curious why she thought it was wrong. She responded, ‘Women are human beings and human beings have rights. It is wrong to trample on someone’s rights.’ I asked her how she knew that.

Puzzled, she said, ‘Everyone knows it is wrong to violate the rights of someone.’ I said, ‘Most people in the world don’t ‘know’ that. They don’t have a Western view of human rights. Imagine if someone said to you ‘everyone knows that women are inferior.’ You’d say, ‘That’s not an argument, it’s just an assertion.’ And you’d be right. So let’s start again. If there is no God as you believe and everyone has just evolved from animals, why would it be wrong to trample on someone’s rights?’ Her husband responded: ‘Yes, it is true that we are just bigger-brained animals, but I’d say animals have rights too. You shouldn’t trample on their rights, either.’ I asked whether he had held animals guilty for violating the rights of other animals if the stronger ones ate the weaker ones. ‘No, I couldn’t do that.’ So he only held human beings guilty if they trampled on the weak? ‘Yes.’ Why this double standard, I asked. Why did the couple insist that human beings had to be different from animals, so that they were not allowed to act as was natural to the rest of the animal world. Why did the couple keep insisting that humans had this great, unique individual dignity and worth? Why did they believe in human rights? ‘I don’t know,’ the woman said, ‘I guess they are just there, that’s all.’

The conversation was much more congenial than this very compressed account conveys. The young couple laughed at the weakness of some of their responses, which showed me that they were open to exploration and that encouraged me to be more pointed than I would ordinarily have been. However, this conversaiton reveals how our culture differs from all others that have gone before. People still have strong moral convictions, but unlike people in other times and places, they don’t have any visible basis for why they find somethings to be evil and other things to be good. It’s almost like their moral intuitions are free-floating in midair–far off the ground.

From A Reason for God, Tim Keller, pg. 144-45

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