Other Worldviews

A Conflict between Two Systems of Morality

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 03/22/2022

Why have the culture wars become so intense? One reason for this is the fact that, in the West, there is a deep, worldview division between two systems of morality. One side believes in an objective standard to which we ought to conform, and the other side believes authentic choice is the highest goal.

Here, Gene Edward Veith explains this division and gives a specific example of how this worldview divide is playing out in our culture:

Existential ethics is centered not upon moral absolutes but upon the individual’s moral choice. An action is praiseworthy not in terms of whether or not it conforms to some external moral code, but whether or not it reflects a genuine choice and commitment on the part of the individual. In Heidegger’s terms, those who blindly conform to other people’s rules are inauthentic. They deny their own responsibility for their lives and reject their innate freedom, letting other people make their decisions for them. Those who freely choose a course of action, asserting their will to shape their own lives, are authentic. Whether they choose traditional morality or a more unconventional lifestyle, what validates their action is whether or not there was a conscious choice.

Existential ethics, far from being the province of academic and obscure philosophers, has come to dominate contemporary moral discourse, even in popular culture. The debates, for example, on abortion show the collision between the existential way of approaching ethical issues and the Judeo-Christian approach. The latter seeks absolute moral principles, such as the Biblical injunction “Thou shalt not kill” and the transcendent value of human life. The question remains whether or not a developing fetus is an example of human life and therefore worthy of protection. Objective evidence is admitted at this point, whether from Scripture or from medicine, as well as rational discussion about the definition of human life.

Existential ethics brackets the objective issues on abortion entirely. At issue is not some transcendent moral law, nor medical evidence, nor logical analysis. The only issue is whether or not the mother has a choice. The content of that choice makes no difference. If the mother chooses to have the baby, her action is moral. If she chooses not to have the baby, her action is still moral. If she has no choice in the matter—if she bears a child against her will or aborts a child against her will—then and only then is the action evil…. Those who believe that abortion should be legal do not consider themselves “pro-abortion.” They are “pro-choice.” The term is not only a rhetorical euphemism but a precise definition of existential ethics.

Existentialism is also reflected in those who are “pro-choice” but personally oppose abortion. They do not believe in abortion for themselves, but refuse to impose their beliefs on others. In this view, a belief has no validity outside the private, personal realm of each individual. Moral and religious beliefs are no more than personal constructions, important in giving meaning to an individual’s life, but not universally valid. Or, to use another commonly accepted axiom, “what’s true for you may not be true for me.”

The problem we face as a society is not simply that one side of the culture war is doing what is right and the other is doing what is wrong (although, if there really is an objective standard, then it is the case that one side is right and the other wrong on any given issue); the deeper problem is that the two sides disagree altogether on what right and wrong are. We disagree on what it is that makes something right and wrong, and so we disagree on our evaluation of the morality of numerous contentious issues, and—even worse—we no longer share a common standard to which we can appeal in order to make the case for the rightness of our side.

The ultimate consequence of this divide remains to be seen. Will we come back together under belief in the existence of an objective standard of morality (the only situation where discovery of moral truths and attempts to persuade are possible), or, without a common standard to appeal to, where the only option left to us is force, will we descend into endless, alternating power plays? My prayer is that we can persuade our fellow citizens at the worldview level—the foundational level from which all ideas follow—that both God and the objective moral standard that reflects his character exist. When that happens, our ability to engage in moral reasoning with each other will be restored.

Don’t get so caught up in the politics of individual issues that you leave behind your primary task as a Christian—the task of telling people the gospel and making disciples of Christ (whether by gathering new believers or maturing existing ones). If you begin with that task, a cascade of other cultural changes will follow. If you ignore it, not only will you be ignoring Christ’s command, but persuading others on individual cultural issues will be far more difficult for you, and perhaps impossible.