Is there a moral law?
So far I haven’t been able to find evidence of a universal moral law (except personal knowledge and philosophical arguments). I’ve been thinking that if moral law is as real as I think it is, it would be odd for psychologists not to stumble upon cold hard facts that point to its existence. Can you help me out?
I understand your frustration. Many contemporary psychologists take for granted that conscience is something pumped in from the outside. Their idea is that your parents told you things, your teachers told you things, the policeman told you things and somehow all those things got inside you and made a conscience. This story is half-true at best. Certainly there is something in conscience that comes in from outside, but there is something else in conscience that doesn’t. The latter is far more important.
We see the same problem in sociology. In the 1970s, scholars of the family reported that kids are remarkably resilient, do just as well with one parent as with two, are better off if parents who have conflicts divorce — all that jazz. But you know facts are hard things to ignore. In the 1990s, after larger and better studies, scholars of the family are discovering that everything your great-grandmother told you is true after all. As sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur now write, “If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal.”
The problem arises in cultural anthropology too. It was founded by people who wanted to prove that morality is different everywhere and they saw what they wanted to, whether it was there or not. But again, the data is on our side. For example, Colin Turnbull wrote that the Ik, in Africa, have no conscience, but later researchers found that actually they had a strong sense of moral obligation and social solidarity. Margaret Mead wrote that the Samoans had none of our rules about sex, but later researchers found that actually they valued chastity very highly. A better statement of the true state of affairs is this one, written by John M. Cooper in 1931:
[T]he peoples of the world, however much they differ as to details of morality, hold universally, or with practical universality, to at least the following basic precepts. Respect the Supreme Being or the benevolent being or beings who take his place. Do not “blaspheme.” Care for your children. Malicious murder or maiming, stealing, deliberate slander or “black” lying, when committed against friend or unoffending fellow clansman or tribesman, are reprehensible. Adultery proper is wrong, even though there be exceptional circumstances that permit or enjoin it and even though sexual relations among the unmarried may be viewed leniently. Incest is a heinous offense. This universal moral code agrees rather closely with our own Decalogue taken in a strictly literal sense.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, the peoples of the world may disagree about whether you may have one wife or four, but they all recognize that there is something special about the marital union of a man and a woman; they may disagree about which virtues are most important, but they all agree that gratitude is something good and cowardice is something bad.
Here’s what you need to do: Begin reading the literature of Natural Law. “Natural Law” is the philosophical term for what St. Paul in Romans 2:14-15 called “the law written on the heart.” It refers to those basic moral principles that we literally can’t not know, along with their first few rings of implications. You might be interested in my book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. It was written largely for people just like you.
Love God with all your heart, and He will guide your studies.
Grace and peace,
Copyright 2004 Professor Theophilus. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.