Last week, I was in Washington D.C., standing in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives Museum. The Rotunda is a vault that houses three of the most important documents in United States history: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. As I stood in front of the Declaration, I leaned in close to the glass pane separating us, straining to read the faded words and looking for that famous sentence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Prior to visiting the National Archives Museum, I had just finished six days of speaking to hundreds of students at the Great Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, and at Fredericksburg Christian High School in Virginia. During my teaching on moral relativism, I quoted this line from the Declaration, highlighting the Founding Fathers’ view that some moral truths are “self-evident.” The disconcerted look on students’ faces revealed their confusion.
On one hand, there is a general respect for the Founders and their ideas. In addition, Christian students also realize the pages of the Bible are filled with moral claims. On the other hand, they are drowning in a culture of moral skepticism that has thoroughly dismantled their confidence we can know any moral truths. So if moral truth cannot really be known, how in the world can it be self-evident? To cope with their confusion, most students surrender to the cultural view and simply relegate morality to the subjective realm of personal belief. “Biblical morality is true for me because I believe it,” they reason, “but it’s not true for everyone because people hold differing moral views. Who am I to say I know what’s right and wrong for other people?” In doing so, students may think they’ve salvaged biblical morality, but in truth, they’ve sabotaged their moral convictions and courage.
In order to rebuild our students’ moral confidence, we need to build a solid foundation from the ground up. And the idea of self-evident moral truths represents the ground floor of moral reasoning. Such truths are known to us by way of our moral intuitions. An intuition is a faculty of knowing. It’s a reflective way of seeing something. It’s a way of knowing that is immediate and direct. You see something, you reflect for a moment, and you simply come to see the truth of the matter. Indeed, Scripture tells us such moral knowledge is already built in to every human being. In Romans 2:14-15, the Apostle Paul writes, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them….” For the Founders, God’s moral law written on our hearts enables us to recognize self-evident moral truths, such as the intrinsic value of every human being.
To help students grasp this concept better, I compared their moral perception to their sense perception. Sight via the eyes is the faculty we use to see the physical reality around us. If a dog walks in front of me, I see it and know it exists. If you asked me how I know, I would respond, “Because I see it. It’s self-evident. I just see that dog walking in front of me.” If you asked me to prove it, I would simply point to the dog and say, “Look! It’s right there. Can’t you see it?” If you said, “No, I don’t see any dog,” I would conclude there is something wrong with your sense perception, that your eyesight is not working properly. However, I would not conclude that I was not actually seeing a dog.
In the same way, our moral intuitions are a faculty we use to “see” the moral reality around us. I see that torturing children for fun is wrong, or murder is wrong, or dishonesty is a vice, and thus apprehend moral truth. If you asked me how I know, I would respond, “Because I see it. It’s self-evident. I just see that torturing babies for fun is morally wrong.” If you asked me to prove it, I would simply point to the action of torturing young children and say, “Look! The truth is right there. Can’t you see it?” If you said, “No, I don’t think torturing babies for fun is wrong,” I would conclude there is something wrong with your moral perception. However, I would not conclude that it was not actually wrong to torture babies for the pure pleasure of it.
Not every moral truth is self-evident, but a basic truth, like “all men are equal in dignity and rights,” is, as the Declaration of Independence acknowledges. When students hear this explanation, you can see their eyes light up. They get it. They now have a framework that makes sense of what they already know to be true. And with that understanding comes a growing confidence in their moral views and, ultimately, in God’s moral laws expressed in Scripture.