(If you’re interested in a much more detailed examination of this topic, please see this post.)
Was the Orlando massacre wrong? And if so, why?
Now, at least to avoid any confusion, I want to affirm where I stand right off the bat today. I unequivocally affirm that what happened this last weekend in Orlando, Florida — where over 50 people were killed and 50 more were injured — was unequivocally wrong. That was a grave moral evil. And you are probably thinking, “Yeah, I agree. Is there any question about that?” Well I have not seen anyone raise a question about if what happened was wrong or not. And I think that is interesting for a number of reasons. Not because I think it was not wrong; I think it was wrong. But it is very interesting when people in our society today, who are not Christians, take a firm stand on a moral issue. Because, you see, there are only a few reasons why what happened this weekend was actually wrong. And we are going to look at each of those together today.
Option 1 – Why was it wrong: It wasn’t
So the first of our five options was that it was not wrong. You might think this is a very odd view to hold. But there are some people who would just say that it a pattern of behavior that was anti-social . And you might say, “So you do not think anything wrong happened?” “Well, no. It was just the result of a certain brain-state or series of brain-states. I do not like it, but I cannot say it was wrong. Because it is just a matter of someone living out what their neuro-biochemical impulses coded for them to do.” So, nothing actually wrong happened. There are some people who intellectually believe that.
And I actually know some of these types of people. But you know what is interesting, when someone throws a baseball at your face, you instinctively raise your hand because you know that a ball is coming at you. And you know how most of these people initially react to mass killings? They say, “This was a horrible evil.” They feel this. And sometimes, those are the words out of their mouth. And I think their innate moral knowledge actually betrays their intellectual commitments. That they know something is wrong even if they would say, sitting back in their arm chair, that it was not. And we can push on that. We can trade on the fact that what they instinctively know to be true about reality, namely that murder is wrong, is accurate. It informs them well, just like a baseball coming to the face means you raise your hand.
So the first of our five options we were going to look at was it was not wrong. And some people will hold this line. But often times, they are going to live like it is not true.
Option 2 – Why was it wrong: I believe it to be wrong (Relativism)
The second option for why the massacre was wrong is; well, I say it is wrong. Where does morality come from? Well, it is up to me; this is called relativism: Where moral truths are only true for the person making them. Where they are relative to the person making them. This is a subjective view of truth. Where truth depends on a person and how they feel. One way to think of this is that it is kind of like an umpire at a baseball game.
If the pitcher is throwing the ball across the plate, the umpire has two ways he could look at how to come up with if it is a ball or a strike. He could say, “I call them as I see them.” In other words, if the ball goes across the plate and it is a strike, I recognize and describe the reality that was in front of me and say it was a strike. Or he could say, “They are nothing until I call them.”
Now, where is the truth in these two different views? Well in the first view, “I call them as I see them”, the truth is in the world and we are simply describing it. On the second view, “they are nothing until I call them”, the truth is in the mind. What makes the call what it is totally depends on me. And some people have this view of truth when it comes to moral matters – That things are only right or wrong because of how I perceive them to be. And this is where we get things like, “Well that is just your truth” or “That is your morality”. Well here is the thing, if morality just depends on how I feel then nothing actually wrong happened in Orlando.
Because, here’s what we are saying if this is how we come up with moral truth: it is basically a preference. “I think this way, you might think otherwise. We cannot apply our standards to each other. It just depends on how we feel.” Which means there is nothing wrong actually happening out in the world. Think back to the baseball example. Where is the truth when the baseball pitcher example?Well, it is in the umpire’s mind. It is not in reality. He is not describing something that actually exists outside of himself. And it is the same way when people hold a relativistic view of truth. They are not describing the actual act of murder, they are just telling you how they feel about it. And surely, that robs the situation of the gravity of what happened.
It does not do justice to the people who lost their lives to say, “Well, it is just my opinion that it’s wrong that they were killed.” No. The actual fact of the matter, as we will get to in a minute, is that an objective moral evil was done. And this is where relativism really shows its bankruptcy. It leaves someone with the view that, “Well, my preference was violated.” They might not talk like that, just like the person who would deny anything is right or wrong on any system. But what they end up having to affirm intellectually is that, “Well, all I can say is it would be wrong for me.” Or, “I think it was wrong but I cannot say it was wrong for that person.” And this shows that relativism does not work. Morality cannot just be up to us as individuals to decide best on our preference.
Option 3 – Why was it wrong: Consensus
So first of our two options, “it was not wrong”, that does not work. Relativism does not work, that is just about personal preference. Well, what about consensus? Is murder wrong only because we as a society say murder is wrong? No. Because this is just a bigger version of relativism. On relativism, each person decides for themselves. On a consensus view (also called social contract theory), societies together determine. Maybe by voting – officially or unofficially – as to what is right and what is wrong.
But, you know, this is an interesting view because it actually makes Hitler out to be moral. Right? So Hitler was the elite powerful majority with the Nazi party. And his subjugation, and mass murder, and genocide of Jews and many other people would have had to be right in that context; if the majority makes right.
And Martin Luther King, on a social contract theory view, would have been immoral. He went against the established norms of the day, norms established by consensus, when he said that Blacks were just as valuable and deserved equal rights just like Whites did. That was not the majority view at the time. And so, this view actually kind of turns moral truths and intuitions on their head. Because Martin Luther King would be immoral. Hitler would be moral.
And you know, what is interesting is the LGBT community today is all up in arms about how gay people are treated in other countries, like Muslim ruled countries where they are executed, or Russia where they are treated very harshly too and potentially executed. But how can we say that those things are wrong when those societies are simply doing what the consensus of the governed people have said? We cannot. We cannot actually say it is wrong to do something in another society because that society has made up their mind. They have established, as a group, what is true morally speaking.
But this does not explain morality either because it is just a bigger version of relativism. It is just up to us and our preferences as a group. And if a group of people said the Earth is flat, does that make the Earth flat? No. If an individual says the Earth is flat, does that make the Earth flat? No. The truth is out in the world for our describing, and there is a right and wrong answer regardless of how an individual thinks about it or how a group comes to vote or believe by consensus.
Option 4 – Why was it wrong: Evolution
So we cannot affirm the fact that nothing actually wrong happened in the massacre. We cannot affirm relativism. That does not work, that is just personal preference. Consensus cannot work either because it is just a bigger version of personal preference. But what about evolution? Can evolution ground right and wrong? Well, let us think about it.
Evolution is based on the neo-Darwinian synthesis – the survival of the fittest. Well, murder by definition is an example of survival of the fittest. A fitter person has killed less fit people. How could that be wrong on an evolutionary view? If evolution is about the fittest surviving to propagate their genes by whatever means possible, well then how could doing that actually become wrong? On an evolutionary view of morality, how would homosexuality be right? How does it make sense to say that evolution would lead people to believe that homosexuality is good when by definition that does not lead to propagating our genes into the next generation? That does not make sense.
Additionally, on an evolutionary view of morality, murder and rape and genocide could not be wrong. Because they are, by definition, the fit surviving at the expense of the less fit. But this does not fit with our moral intuition. Additionally, evolution puts me first. It is me, me, me, I, I, I. And as C.S. Lewis said, selfishness has never been admired. Well why is that, if evolution creates in us our moral intuitions and feelings?
You know, sometimes morality actually literally puts me second. Holding the door for someone, which is an act of kindness that is a moral good, always means I am second. Hopping on a grenade to save your fellow soldiers in battle ends your life. Why would evolution create in us the desire to do those things, those reactions, if they do not help us further our genetic code? Well, it would not.
Option 2 – Why was it wrong: God is the grounding of morality
So evolution is a poor grounding for morality also. So, it cannot just be that the massacre was not wrong. It cannot be a relativistic wrong where it is just up to me and maybe it was right for someone else. It cannot be based on consensus. It cannot be based on evolution. Well, what is the other option? Well there is only one so far as I can tell: it was wrong because God said it was wrong. Because what happened was, a moral law was broken. And moral laws come from moral law givers.
Now, you do not have to acknowledge the moral law giver to know the moral law. The example has been given that you do not need to know about authors in order to know how to read. You are left with a problem, though. Where did these words come from? But nonetheless, you can learn to read and know that words exist and books exist and not believe in authors. You can do this with other areas too. Like, we believe in gravity but we do not know what actually causes it scientifically speaking. It is kind of a modern scientific mystery.
So, we can believe in things and not know where they come from. But the question becomes though, why is it wrong? Why do I have this innate moral knowledge. And I think this actually points to the existence of God. And this takes us to the moral argument for God’s existence, which we are not going to get into today. But it goes like this:
- If God does not exist objective moral values do not exist.
- But objective moral values do exist right. (People know them. Everyone knows that this massacre was wrong.)
- Therefore God exists.
And basically what this argument is saying is, a moral law requires a moral law giver. And that moral law giver is God. He has revealed Himself in scripture. He has given us His moral law. More than that, He has written on our hearts which is why we know it. Now is morality known the same across the whole world? No. But is it remarkably similar? Yes. Even in groups and tribes that have grown up in great isolation from each other, murder is wrong, theft is wrong, adultery is wrong. They might have slightly different sexual norms or other things like that. But we have a moral sense. It is marred by the fall, that is true. But we know morality. And when we act in contrary action to what we know, we are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness like Paul says in Romans 1. Because what can be known about God is plain to us. People know there is an authority and they suppress that truth inwardly.
So why was the massacre wrong? Because God’s law was broken. Because people that He created in His image and His likeness to testify to Him were murdered. Life is not ours to take without proper justification.
So the only grounding that actually makes any sense out of our moral intuition, and the very reason we know that what happened was wrong, is that God exists. That He created us in His image; that is why we know moral truths. And that is also why it was wrong. It was wrong because and image bearer of God was murdered.
I hope this helps you think through it. But I also hope it equips you to, maybe not right now but in the future, talk with some of the people that are having very visceral reactions to what happened. Now is not the time to pull out the logic and pull their worldview apart, by any means. Now is the time to sit with people, and grieve with people, and affirm wholeheartedly, full-throatedly, that what happened was evil. It was wrong – no questions asked.
But there is a time for also talking about worldview and how they know it was wrong. Now is probably not that time. But you need to pay attention to what people say, and how they think, and how they feel about what happened in times of moral crisis. So later on, we can use that to point people to the truth that they are created in the image of God. And ultimately, they are accountable to Him.
We do not use that in any type of manipulative way. But it is an evidence of them being created in the image of God, that they feel this way, that they react this way. And they might cloak it in views like it is just a pattern of behavior, or it is just up to me, or it is a consensus, or it is just based on evolution. But ultimately, all of those are like standing on quicksand. They cannot ground what actually happened as wrong. And they do not ultimately do justice to the evil and travesty that occurred.
So I hope this has been helpful in helping you think through how to think about moral truths and moral tragedies. And I look forward to talking to you next week on Unapologetic.