Who Has the Authority to Tell Us Right and Wrong?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

If God does not exist, then who has the authority to provide normative moral evaluations and obligations? David Baggett and Jerry Walls wonder about this question in the introductory chapter of their book, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. Baggett and Walls cite an essay written by Yale law professor Arthur Allen Leff in 1979, in which Leff probes the “fragile foundations of postmodern morality.” Below is their analysis of his essay:

He began his essay by identifying “two contradictory impulses” that he thought were present in most people. On the one hand, we want to believe that there is a complete set of transcendent propositions that direct us how to live righteously, propositions that he characterizes as “findable” because they exist objectively and independently of us. On the other hand, we want to believe that there are no such rules, that we are completely free to decide and choose for ourselves what we ought to do and be. “What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.”

Parenthetically, I believe that Leff hit the proverbial nail on the head. I have found that the most socially liberal people who want to toss out traditional moral principles are the most vocal advocates of the moral principles they choose for themselves. They want, at the same time, to not be told how to live, but to also tell other people how to live.

Baggett and Walls continue:

It was Leff’s thesis that much of what was written about law that is mysterious and confusing could only be understood in light of these contradictory impulses toward both found law and created law. Indeed, it was his sense that this tension was “particularly evident in the growing, though desperately resisted, awareness that there may be, in fact, nothing to be found—that whenever we set out to find ‘the law,’ we are able to locate nothing more attractive, or more final, than ourselves.”

Of course, in traditional morality, there was something more attractive and more final than ourselves, and that ultimate reality was God himself. Leff goes on to show that coming up with a suitable moral substitute for God is no easy task. What is required is some convincing account of who, short of God, has the authority to provide normative moral evaluations and obligations. When finite, fallible beings attempt to take that role, they invariably invite “what is known in barrooms and schoolyards as ‘the grand sez who’?”

Leff’s article concludes on a memorable, if somewhat despairing note as he acknowledges the dismal prospects if we ourselves are all we have when it comes to morality. His final lines are as follows.

As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless: Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation. Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned. There is in the world such a thing as evil. [All together now:] Sez who? God help us.

  • Andrew R

    So God has the authority… Sez who?

  • rericsawyer

    Who says that the ratio of the
    circumference of a circle to its diameter has to be π?

    No, I’m not trying to be cute. I think it is very nearly the same question. This blog has moved a considerable number electrons in the exploration of whether there is an objective basis for any moral statement at all; whether that statement is observed by any
    particular moral code notwithstanding. Is anything actually, objectively, finally “Wrong?” And if so, why?

    Unless we go into an infinite regress of “good for society” (why should that matter to me?) good “for largest group” (again, why should that matter to me?), we eventually have to say something similar to “IT JUST IS” unless we want to go purely “evolutionary
    adaptation” here, and say there is nothing truly wrong, but we have more successful offspring if we act as if there are.

    This sounds very much like C/D = pi. Because it just is. Everywhere. Always. In every conceivable part of the universe. Whether one postulates a supreme being or not, some things are simply true. Why should we have a hard time swallowing that for morals, when we accept it without batting an eye for mathematics?
    We can have absolutes here, why should we not see them there?

    I would not be surprised if I attract a little “friendly-fire” from other Christians, but these things that are *simply true* of whatever field, this aggregate of absolutes is at least the foundation of what I understand by “God”. If one wonder which came first, “Does God obey the rules of Geometry (or moral behavior), or do the rules of Geometry obey God,” then he has missed that first statement – that this body of absolutes IS (at perhaps the minimal possible level) God. Of course, on this foundation, I see a description built that extends to many levels, including full creedal Trinitarian Christianity. But I see this aggregate of absolutes to be at least part, and a fundamental part of that description.

    A person may be able to go no further with me than this; that there is a body of uncreated, self-referential FACT in the
    universe, to which all else must be subject. One can build a bridge in disregard of some of those facts, but God help (sorry) anyone who tries to cross it! But I think anyone who agrees with this statement is already on the same road with me.