Tag Archives: Objective Standards

Moral Benchmarks

U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson & Russian assistant prosecutor General Uri Pokrovsky listen to testimony at Nurmeberg, 1946.

We needed to buy new computers at my office a while back. Some of our engineering software has specific requirements, so it was important to make sure the new hardware would work well with our software for the next several versions. But in looking at different platforms, each company had their own claim to be the fastest/most-powerful/best-overall, and so on. If there’s a way to split hairs over words to be able to say your product is the best, creative marketers will find that way. After all, if you define your class down small enough, anyone can claim they are “best in class” – especially once they’re the only one in some ridiculously narrow category! So what’s a person to do to cut through the ulterior motives of marketers and objectively rate competing claims? Wouldn’t it be great if somebody compared each company’s product to the same independent standard so you could see if that expensive video card actually renders 3D graphics better, or if it’s just hype? Well, while it’s not perfect, such a protocol is out there, and it’s called a benchmark. Benchmarking takes each computer and runs the same load test on it to try (as best we can) to get an objective measure of how powerful that processor really is, how good those graphics really are, and so on. But the key to a benchmark is that it’s independent of the competitors. If the standard changes from one product to the next, then it’s not really a standard, and we’re back to having to sift through the hype. What about when you’re confronted not with competing computer hardware, but with competing views of morality? Is there a benchmark you can appeal to for that as well? Let’s work through that today.

Like the competing computer companies, competing cultures or nations will try to justify their actions as being right. But can some of these competing claims be right at the same time? It seems like in order for some to right, others would have to be false. Consider an example. The American Declaration of Independence claims that every person is endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to life. The Nazi regime of Germany in WWII had a different idea. They believed Jews did not have an inalienable right to life. In fact, they believed they were doing humanity a service by “purifying” humanity of people they considered undesirable.  Both of these views can’t be right. If the American view is right, then the lowest Jew in the Warsaw ghetto had a right to life just as much as the highest SS officer in Berlin. That same American protection applied equally to the mentally and physically handicapped that the Nazis also slaughtered (or experimented on).

Of course, whether we admit it or not, we all recognize that some things we do are wrong, or else we would never bother trying to think up excuses to justify our actions. The Nazis were no different. Their justification for murdering various groups of people  was one used throughout history: simply redefine your victim as inherently different from you so that a different standard applies to them. The Nazis did the same as some slave owners in the American South of the 1800’s, who rationalized their ownership and treatment of black people by declaring them subhuman. The Jews were likewise declared subhuman, and therefore killing a Jew wasn’t murder, and trying to kill them all wasn’t genocide. In fact, the Nazi term “untermenschen” – applied to Jews especially, but also to other groups – was taken from the German translation of a book published (sadly) by an American eugenicist named Lothrop Stoddard in 1922, which referred to non-white people as “under-men”. Defining people the Nazis didn’t like as “subhuman” meant there was no problem in the Nazi moral system with experimenting on them, starving them, gassing them, and generally murdering them in any way imaginable. Convenient for the Nazis – not so much for their victims.

But were the Nazis wrong or just different? Many could (and did) say that they were simply following orders. Many could point to the legality of what they did. Many could point to the fact that not only were their war crimes not punishable in their culture, but they were rewarded for what they did to rid the world of those subhuman untermenschen. They could argue that what they did was defined as good in their culture. Who are we to condemn them just because we don’t value racial purity like they did?, they would ask.  Can we just say that we have our morality and the Nazis had theirs, and we should tolerate it? To each his own? Can a relativist society that denies the existence of objective truth and objective morality say anything else? Thankfully, America’s Greatest Generation would have none of that nonsense. They recognized evil for what it was and did not tolerate it. And in the Nuremberg trials, Justice Robert Jackson appealed to that law above all national laws that would supersede any Nazi appeal to their own law, for even rulers are “under God and the law”.[1]  And what was Justice Jackson building on but that foundation of American jurisprudence, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England?[2] William Blackstone rightly observed that “That rule which natural reason has dictated to all men, is called the law of nations.” But what is this natural law? Blackstone answers that it is to do the will of our Maker. He wrote that what we call natural law that is applicable to all people regardless of place or time, is none other than our own perception of divine law, determined as best we can through our faulty and corrupted human reason. Yet we do not have to rely on that sometimes-distorted perception of divine law, for God has explicitly revealed it to humanity through the Bible. He further comments  that “human laws are only declaratory of, and act in subordination to, the former [divine law]. To instance in the case of murder; this is expressly forbidden by the divine, and demonstrably by the natural law; and from these prohibitions arise the true unlawfulness of this crime. … if any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it, we are bound to transgress that human law, or else we must offend both the natural and the divine.” [3] That line of reasoning will likely sound familiar to anyone that’s read of the apostles Peter and John telling the Sanhedrin that in a conflict between the Council’s laws and God’s laws, they must obey God [Ac 4:19-20].

So where do we turn to find an independent benchmark for comparing moral systems across the gaps of time and place and culture? How are we to judge between competing claims of morality? Might I suggest we turn to our Creator, who is above all cultures, all times, all places, all nations, and all philosophies and ideologies, and who is the source of all true law?

[1] Robert Jackson, Opening Statement at Nuremberg, “Second Day, Wednesday, 11/21/1945, Part 04”, in Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal. Volume II. Proceedings: 11/14/1945-11/30/1945. [Official text in the English language.] Nuremberg: IMT, 1947. pp. 98-102.
[2]Blackstone’s Commentaries are considered “second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions.” – William D. Bader, “Some Thoughts on Blackstone, Precedent and Originalism”. Vermont Law Review (1995), p. 8.
[3] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1769 (Kindle edition by Wallachia Books, 2015), Introduction, Section 2: Of the Nature of Laws in General.



Christ in the Wilderness - Ivan Kramskoy - 1872 (small)
Christ in the Wilderness – Ivan Kramskoy – 1872

Consider the following situation: you are in your final semester of college, and one class is borderline. If you pass the final, you pass the class. If you pass the class, you graduate. If you don’t pass the final, your diploma is delayed another semester. Now suppose you’re going into engineering, where you are required to work under a practicing engineer before you’re eligible to become licensed yourself. But this experience (typically 2 to 4 years) doesn’t start counting until your after actual diploma date. A lot is riding on this one exam. Having retaken a class may not matter in 20 years after you’ve established a solid work record, but the stakes are high as you get ready to start your career. Lastly, suppose you have the opportunity to get the exam answers in such a way that you know you won’t get caught and nobody will ever know you cheated. You will benefit greatly, and there will be no foreseeable “casualties” from your actions (i.e. the exam is not graded on a curve, so your cheating will not adversely affect anyone else’s score, and so on).  Would you do it?

If your ethical standard is of a consequentialist nature (i.e. all that matters is the consequence, or end result), you could reasonably justify cheating in this case. It benefits you, without harming anyone else, so why not? For instance, if you take atheist Sam Harris’ view of basing our morals on whatever promotes human flourishing, then you could argue that the cheating would certainly appear to help you flourish in your career; and if it doesn’t hurt anyone else, that’s a net gain, right? But I’d like to suggest that the idea of simply not harming others isn’t sufficient for an ethical standard because of unforeseen consequences. We may truly believe that an action of ours, though generally viewed as unacceptable ethically, will be alright in a particular instance because it’s “not hurting anybody.” But we are notoriously short-sighted, especially when it benefits us personally. Whether intentionally or not, we often selectively look at the reasons for and against a course of action, ignoring or minimizing the potential consequences of our desired action if those consequences might stop us from acting.  But even if we are seriously, conscientiously weighing the pros and cons of a particular decision fairly, we still have our very finite knowledge hindering us. We simply do not, and cannot, know all possible ramifications of our actions, either immediate or in the distant future. In this case, the cheating may very well contribute to a timely graduation and successful career, with no harm to anyone else. But what we may not see from our limited perspective is that it will actually hurt us in the long run. For one successful lie often sets the stage for others later. At some point, our example student may find himself in another ethical dilemma. But now, ten years later as an engineer, it’s no longer grades riding on his decision, but people’s lives. Again, he might decide he has figured a way out of the dilemma where some unethical behavior won’t matter because “nobody will ever know” and “it won’t hurt anybody”. But, the devil’s in the details, as they say. This time, there is a subtle distinction he missed, and now people have died because of his lie. An investigation may determine the immediate cause of the tragedy, and find him guilty of misconduct or negligence in that particular design, but is that the root of it, or was the deeper cause ten years earlier when he learned that he could get away with cheating? Ideas have consequences, and one of the consequences of consequentialist systems of ethics (like utilitarianism and situation ethics) is a reliance on one’s own limited and fallible knowledge as the standard of right and wrong. This situation was aptly described in the Bible when it says that people in the land “did what was right in their own eyes.”[1]

Instead of relying on our error-prone selves to guess at right and wrong, might I suggest a better standard? It’s hard to judge the sweep in a line without a ruler to put next to it. Ask different people and you’ll likely get different answers. But get out a ruler, and that “official” standard settles it. Only having God as a source of our ethics is sufficient. Recognizing that God is the source of morality eliminates the idea that differences in ethics may simply be differences of culture or time.  God is the “third-party” that’s needed to settle these differences. Unforeseen consequences are the bane of utilitarian ethics, but that’s not a problem for an omniscient God. We can rely on His decrees because He is all-knowing. Recognizing that aspect of His nature also eliminates the rationalization that nobody has to know the wrong we do, for God knows. Recognizing that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment”[2] reminds us that we will be held accountable for every action, whether anybody happened to be harmed by a particular deed or not. God cares not simply about the results of our actions, but the root of our actions – our motives and intentions. But there is hope in knowing what to do: He has revealed to us what is required of us, both in the natural law written in our hearts, and in the special revelation of the Bible. He has also provided a way for us to made acceptable before Him in spite of our all-too-imperfect humanity: the redemptive sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. And His way is always the right choice.

[1] Judge 17:6.
[2] Hebrews 9:27. See also, Ecclesiastes 12:14.
Additional Resources: For an in-depth comparison of different ethical systems with support and objections to each, I recommend Philosophical Foundations for Christian Worldview, Part V: Ethics, by J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2003).