Does Cultural Opinion Equal Morality?

Brendan Eich resigned as CEO of Mozilla in the face of protests to his past opposition to gay marriage. HGTV pulled a show featuring David and Jason Benhem when their outspoken Christian beliefs created backlash.

Donald Sterling has been banned from the NBA and will likely be forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers because of racial comments. Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been criticized in some quarters for remarks he made in response to the Sterling affair.

On the higher education front, protests recently derailed college graduation addresses from former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, recently retired California-Berkley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and women’s advocate and critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The terrorist group Boko Haram sparked international outrage and a wave of social media protest when it kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian girls from their boarding school and threatened to sell them into slavery.

While the particulars are very different, the common thread in each of these situations is the response of moral judgment. As I’ve mentioned before, this is curious in a culture that supposedly values tolerance so highly. Tolerance, it seems, is appropriate until it isn’t.

This naturally leads to a very, very important question: when are we justified as individuals and a society in labeling something morally objectionable?

In other words, realizing that across-the-board tolerance has always been a fantasy, when do ideas and actions really deserve condemnation or, for that matter, celebration? Is each one of the situations above justified? Or are some justified and others not?

People often suggest that history will ultimately judge our actions. But if we leave aside the apparent gravity of this expression, we might note that “history” isn’t a personal, moral being. It’s simply a record of events. It doesn’t make judgments.

“True enough,” one might respond, “but history does record how our moral understanding develops and progresses.” If by this we mean that, over time, our cultural views regarding what is moral often seem to change, then few would argue. But when we use terms like “progress” don’t we actually imply that there’s some kind of standard we’re moving toward? That is, that our moral judgments are in some way getting better because they’re becoming more in line with the standard?

But what is that standard? Where does it come from? How do we know if we’re moving toward or away from it?

In a democratic society like ours, many people might suggest that popular or majority opinion is eventually the key factor in deciding what is morally acceptable or not. But isn’t this merely a subtler version of “might makes right,” i.e., it’s okay as long as we have enough votes to make it so? For example, are we really going to suggest that, say, slavery is wrong simply because a majority of people no longer endorse the practice? Was it not wrong when much of the country once held a different view?

To further the point, doesn’t the record of history show that majorities can sometimes be terrifyingly tyrannical? Do we really think that human beings are now immune to such temptations? And what will we do if we’re on the wrong side of the cultural posse?

This eventually leaves us, once again, needing to wrestle with an important truth. The only way moral judgments can be justified is if, in fact, they match up with a real moral standard, one that has real meaning and binding force on our lives and exists whether we agree with it or not. But such a standard can only exist if there really is a good and personal God whose character defines it and whose power stands behind it.

But then again, if our culture was to look toward such a standard and such a God, rather than today’s popular opinion, we just might need to rethink some of our supposedly righteous indignation.

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