It’s a common criticism of the Christian ethic that the morals involved seem arbitrary. This article gives two or three arguments about why we should expect a good moral framework to appear arbitrary.
1 – All Moral Systems are Arbitrary
Critics would like you to believe that the alternative to Christianity is their pet moral framework, but such secondary framework necessarily requires arbitrary selection. The true alternative to arbitrary moral framework A is not arbitrary moral framework B, but a completely non-arbitrary framework.
This is absurd because a totally non-arbitrary framework would not be able to express any particular value for C over D. As a result, it ceases to have the property of being a moral framework at all. Moral frameworks are meant to establish value statements, comparative value statements, and statements about behaviors that should or should not be preferred. If your belief system precludes you from forming any claims involving comparative moral value or whether some behavior should be avoided, engaged with, or preferred to some other verb, then it is not a moral framework.
2 – Optimal Action Toward any Definite but Unknown Goal Involves Apparently Arbitrary Choices
Before demonstrating the larger section title claim, let’s begin with the Austrian Action Axiom to demonstrate a much smaller claim; preference triggers action and action demonstrates preference. Supposing that God exists, the lack of arbitrary morality would imply that God has no teleology, no preference, and no definite goals. This is a wild claim and one a critic cannot defend.
We should expect that God has one or more definite goals for at least two reasons:
- God has acted in history, at least in the case of the creation of the universe if not in many other cases recorded in scripture.
- Our theology tells us that God has definite goals.
Most people, often including myself, do not comprehend God’s definite objectives. As a result, we are not able to match his will to his goals, and we cannot apprehend that there is a teleologically optimal selection, although logically this appears to be exactly the case. In our ignorance of this proper matching, the moral selection appears baseless and we call this arbitrary, but the base is perfectly there: it is an optimal selection of preferences for actions and things that optimize attainment of preferred goals.
This is the case any time we have any definite goal. If I want to go from here to there, there exists some optimal route and also some optimal mode of transportation, an optimal vehicle, an optimal way to interact with that vehicle, and so on. To say that one road is not preferred to the other in service of reaching destination X can only be based in a person’s ignorance of which road is truly ideal, which such ignorance an omniscient God does not possess, or else it reveals a lack of the definite goal of arriving at destination X. Because men do not know God’s definite goals, the criticism can never be based on the latter, and so no possible criticism remains. The claim that God’s moral selection is baseless is simply a critical psychological projection of the mind of the critic.
3 – In Favor of Christianity as the Ideal Arbitrary Morality
3.a – Unifying Organic and Legal Justice
In the below video from Unbelievable, William Lane Craig defends the legal notion of penal substitution as a mechanism for the atonement of sin. Greg Boyd defends the organic view:
Clearly, WLC isn’t defeated, but I don’t think Boyd is defeated substantively either. He lacks a bit of debate skill, but his argument is sound. That is, I see the compatibilist view as the real winner here. Boyd may not seize on this compatibilist view as a means to win the argument, and Craig may not push it so as to yield the point, but I think it wins anyway. This technically false in Craig’s favor because he has a liberal definition of penal substitution which includes both compatible and non-compatible forms, but I think those non-compatible forms are defeated in the debate and I think he nearly or totally concedes this at several points.
The compatible view uniquely fits Christianity. Judaism, Islam, and other Abrahamic religions emphasize works and thereby emphasize legal justice over organic justice. This is rightly called arbitrary in the sense that in many particular cases the punishment overvalues or undervalues the crime. The Jubilee wipes the debts of all debtors every 7 years, but these debts come in a wide variety of values. Christianity isn’t prescriptive in this way. It doesn’t tell you the number of ephahs of grain to offer nor the number of prayers you need to give each day. The general framework of Christianity is “if you sin, you will pay for it at the final judgment.” The particulars of the final punishment are:
- Taken to be perfectly fair
Critics may doubt the second, but on what ground? They would need to disambiguate the punishment and show a mismatch to the crime. I think this motivates much of the caricature of hell which is provided by some critics, but it ignores the very serious, clear, and possibly intentional ambiguity on the nature of the final judgement in scripture. It is precisely Christianity’s ambiguity on the final punishment which allows for it to potentially exactly match the organic to the legal values. The ambiguous punishment logically functions as a variable or floating punishment.
3.b – Christianity’s Wild Success
Given that morality must be arbitrary, it remains that multiple arbitrary sets exist and we still want to select for the best among them. Christianity presents two useful features in this regard:
- It is testable
- It has historically lead to social flourishing
Don’t get me wrong: Christianity isn’t ideal because of either of those two qualities. Such an argument is exactly the reason Harris’s Moral Landscape fails. However, they are two extremely compelling side-benefits to a morality which is already front and center due to the whole cumulative argument for the truth of Christianity, plus the fact of historical social flourishing in Christianity beats out the possibility of future flourishing in the Moral Landscape from Harris.