The existence of a “universal moral code” is a question which has been hotly debated in recent weeks. In a recent article on the subject Steven D. Laib argued that “morality is what people believe it is.” The arguments he presents to support his thesis however, are mostly a list of examples of immoral behavior, not behaviors that are moral by some other standard.
For example, he cites the existence of the practice of human sacrifice in history as proof that what we consider unacceptable today, was “once considered proper in certain times and places.” However, citing the barbaric acts perpetrated by the autocratic elites in a primitive society is not adequate evidence of an “evolving” or “subjective” morality. I doubt whether the masses in Mesoamerica believed the practice of human sacrifice was culturally acceptable, let alone morally right and proper. Rather this practice was imposed upon them by the clerics and kings who ruled those societies. And to the extent that certain individuals were willing to sacrifice themselves in the misguided belief they were serving some greater good, I would argue that would actually be a very noble and even moral act: giving ones own life that another may live is an example of the very highest moral act (in a sense, akin to the willingness of Christ to die for our salvation); this, however does not mean the man who wields the implement of death is behaving morally.
And the fact that a majority of the indigenous people of Central America allied themselves with Cortez and his Conquistadors (and their Catholicism) demonstrates their rejection of the Aztec cult-of-death. Once the Spaniard’s landed in Montezuma’s backyard, the oppressed people subject to ritualistic human sacrifice at the whim of their masters had a champion to rally ‘round. Thus, they aided Cortez in the sack of Tenochtitlan. It matters little that the Spanish, in turn, eventually subjugated the teeming masses (that was simply a lesser evil).
One may cite each and every example of brutality and injustice in history but it is frankly beside the point. Those of us who argue in favor of a “universal moral code,” authored by God do not believe that man is pre-disposed to behave morally; rather they have an innate sense of what is moral yet tend to choose sin over righteousness. The belief in the innate goodness of man is pure folly, especially when one attempts to design a political system upon this porous foundation. A just political system (ours is the closest thing to it in history, though hardly truly just) is built upon the bedrock principles of the universal moral code, no matter how far short of this ideal man tends to fall.
As Dr. Phillip Ellis Jackson pointed out in his essay on the subject, there a variety of reasons why man behaves immorally; poor socialization and mental illness, among them. I would add that the very belief in the non-existence of a moral code (relativism) could also cloud ones judgment when confronted with a moral choice. But I would submit that the root cause of most aberrant behavior is the immemorial king of all the deadly sins: pride. Whether man is elevating himself above God’s laws or the rights of other men, the excessive love of ones self may be the most pernicious and destructive sin of all; and whatever the cause of immoral behavior may be, its mere existence does not preclude the reality of the universal moral code.
The example of the three children Steven Laib uses in his essay is, in reality, not so much an argument against the existence of a universal moral code as a demonstration of differing types of immoral behavior: the school bully who uses force to get what he wants is guilty of both pride and avarice, not a champion of a different moral choice; and the socialist in his example is guilty of the sins of both pride and envy – another example of immorality in practice. These are not innovators of a new or different morality; they are, in fact demonstrators of immoral behavior.
And the use of Islamic law and custom in reference to a debate on the existence of a universal moral code is simply setting up a straw man: many teachings of Islam, and many of the actions of its Prophet are, in fact egregious violations of the universal moral code, not proof of its non-existence. If one objectively studies the life and teachings of Mohammad, one cannot be faulted for concluding that his was less a life of virtue than an exercise in vice: he had at least a dozen wives and his favorite, Aisha was reportedly six years old when they were married and nine when the marriage was consummated; he engaged in scores of raids where men, women, and children were killed and property stolen- in fact the Koran actually stipulates how to divide the booty seized in battle; he violently spread his faith through conquest and killed or subjugated those who refused to submit; he ordered the execution of bound prisoners and the death by stoning of adulteresses. This is why these brutal acts are rampant today in the Islamic world, not because a “peaceful” religion was hijacked by militants. The act of stoning a woman to death for having sex out-of-wedlock is not moral (in an Islamic context) because Islamic morality differs from ours; it is quite simply immoral.
It matters not how clever or well-intentioned a man or even a generation of men may be, they may not legitimately re-write or alter God’s moral code. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “The first thing to get clear about Christian morality between man and man is that in this department Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule of the New Testament is a summing up of what every one, at bottom, had always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that. The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see.”
The universal moral code is comprised of those beliefs which are shared by most every civilization in history and described by the great prophets, philosophers, and holy men of every age. For Christians, it was best described by the Sermon on the Mount and has been summed up as “The Golden Rule.” It was written by God and is the standard by which man will eventually be judged by the same. What it is not is fungible, arbitrary, or alterable by man.
Alas, this debate may ultimately prove futile for as Lewis stated in The Abolition of Man, one cannot prove the truth of the universal moral code because “its validity cannot be deduced. For those who do not perceive its rationality, even universal consent cannot prove it.”