A dilemma facing Australia?

Australia Day is usually a time to celebrate our national birthday, revisit our national identity, and honour those who have contributed to our society and nation. This year, the government honoured the former Army Chief of Staff, General Morrison with the title of ‘Australian of the Year’. This honour usually promotes a particular emphasis on the government’s agenda.

In accepting this honour, General Morrison’s speech included the following statements.

"It is an extraordinary time to be an Australian, but I need to give it qualified agreement."

The former army chief, who is now chair of Diversity Council Australia explained: "For reasons beyond education and professional qualifications or willingness to contribute or a desire to be a part of our society ... too many of our fellow Australians are denied the opportunity to reach their potential.

"It happens because of their gender, because of the god they believe in, because of their racial heritage, because they're not able-bodied, because of their sexual orientation."

While some of the observations Gen Morrison makes should be legitimate concerns for any people, he evidently doesn’t believe in God. Therefore, it raises certain problems when we have to work out what is right or wrong in our society. How do we assess what is a person’s human potential? Are morality and ethics up for grabs? Is there no ultimate view of what is right or wrong? What are the problems associated with human autonomy?

When a society rejects God as the ultimate evaluator of what is right and good (“unevaluated evaluator”) and its accountability to Him, it has to find alternate criteria by which to judge what is right and good. This becomes a particularly serious problem in an increasingly pluralistic society.

In such a society law-shapers claim that religious considerations should be excluded from public life because many people no longer believe in God, or the relevance of God in public affairs. They say that ‘common sense’, and science alone should provide all the essential knowledge for decision-making. Standards of ethics and justice must come from beliefs that are held universally, or ‘natural law’. This is the only way democracy can be achieved.

This view assumes that ‘common sense’ is not affected by personal factors such as experience and self-interest, and that science is a unified discipline that is also free from bias. It is naïve to hold either of these assumptions.

When it comes to choosing judges for its Supreme Court, American legislators [and this is undoubtedly true of other countries as well], are not sure that there exists some objective standard of right and wrong against which human legal standards can be measured. The problem with ‘natural law’ is that there is no concensus when it comes to working out what is right and wrong in particular cases.

Moral impasse

Yale Law Professor Arthur Leff, in his 1979 lecture, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”, expressed the dilemma facing law makers who have rejected the place of God in modern law. He said,

“I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to 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.”

Leff went on to say that the only way this problem can be resolved, is for human beings to find an evaluator who is beyond judgement himself, someone who is beyond the rule of others, “the uncreated creator of values…”, someone like ‘God’!

Unfortunately, Professor Leff, being an agnostic, could only conclude his analysis of the contemporary impasse on this hopeless note:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should...As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. (Id. at 1249).

The view presupposed here is that God made human beings morally autonomous, and every individual becomes, in the words of Professor Leff, a ‘godlet’. Every ‘godlet’ now has as much authority to set standards as any other ‘godlet’, or combination of ‘godlets’. Consequently, what is natural in natural law?

Emil Brunner claimed that, “Where the consciousness of the Holy disappears, where the religious element becomes blurred, or even is questioned and regarded as superstition, there the moral [in this case the ‘natural law’] is menaced with becoming something purely conventional or utilitarian, and thus perverted… If there is no answer to the question of the Lawgiver, then the law is in danger of losing its convincing power.”[1]. It is with this problem that modern law makers have reached an impasse.

In some countries dictators have ‘resolved’ this problem by rejecting all views other than their own. This should ring warning bells for people who claim to live in democratic societies.

By what authority?

Professor Johnson comes to the same conclusion as Brunner, when he says, “The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral,”…but the death of any “coherent… convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon final authority”. Yet, Leff himself was not prepared to accept the conclusions of his own reasoning. So much for academic integrity!

Unfortunately, Professor Leff, being an agnostic, could only conclude his analysis of the contemporary impasse on this hopeless note:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should...As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. (Id. at 1249).

The view presupposed here is that God made human beings morally autonomous, and every individual becomes, in the words of Professor Leff, a ‘godlet’. Every ‘godlet’ now has as much authority to set standards as any other ‘godlet’, or combination of ‘godlets’. Consequently, what is natural in natural law?

The apostle Paul understood the moral degeneracy that takes place when people try to remove God from the human equation. When he wrote to the Church in Rome, he said,

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:18-25, 28).



[1] E. Brunner, Revelation and Reason, p.326.