Why Is a Transcendent Moral Standard Necessary? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

When we humans make moral judgments, when we call some activity morally good or bad, we think that our judgment is universal, that it transcends time, place, and even our own human species. Let me explain each one in turn.

With regard to time, we humans believe that it is perfectly reasonable and normal for us to judge moral actions that occurred in the past. In fact, we routinely criticize the moral actions of our ancestors.

We condemn the Nazis for what they did 70 years ago. We decry American slave owners who lived  200 years ago. We excoriate ancient Romans of 2000 years ago for the unequal treatment of women. We morally reject the killing of women and children in military campaigns led by Bronze Age armies (4000 years ago).

More examples could be given, but hopefully you see the point. Most of us just naturally criticize immoral behavior, regardless of when it occurred. We believe that our judgments are timeless.

With regard to place, we humans believe that it is perfectly reasonable and normal for us to judge moral actions that occur in different places than where we live. Institutions like the United Nations simply assume that moral judgments are applicable to all member nations. There are not generally different moral standards applied to each different nation; they are all expected to uphold the same human rights.

When I, as an American living in the state of North Carolina, read about actions committed in other places in the world, I don’t hesitate to make moral judgments. When China imprisons political dissidents, I condemn them. When North Korea starves its people, I react with moral outrage.

Where an immoral action occurs is simply not normally taken into consideration by most of us. Murder and rape are wrong no matter where they occur.

With regard to our species, we humans believe that it is perfectly reasonable and normal for us to judge the moral actions of creatures with intellect and free will, but which are not human – beings who do not share a human nature with us.

Throughout human history, gods, angels, demons, and spirits have all been subjected to moral rebuke. The ancient Greeks routinely judged the acts of their pantheon of gods as moral or immoral. Christians have always praised the moral activity of angels and condemned the moral activity of demons. Non-Christian skeptics routinely denounce the alleged immoral activity of the Christian God.

Leaving aside gods, it also seems natural that we would hold alien beings who are intelligent and possess free will to our moral standards. Imagine that an intelligent alien race landed on earth and began herding together humans so that they could be used as slaves. Would we not condemn this activity as immoral?

The sci-fi genre has played on this assumption for decades. There have been countless books and movies that portray hostile alien beings inflicting damage on human beings. When those aliens are portrayed as intelligent beings capable of exercising free will, the human characters almost always morally rebuke the actions of the alien beings.

It seems, then, that our human moral judgments are routinely applied to intelligent, free beings that are non-human.

In part 2, we will pick up the argument from here. We will look at how our every-day moral judgments demand a transcendent set of moral values.