Who Gets to Decide What is Good?

The fourth question (see yesterday’s post) is one that we have not clearly asked or answered in our series. It may be one of the most important questions there is. This post is longer. It has some important philosophical-ethical concepts in it. You will find these ideas in most introductory books on ethics.

4|| Who gets to decide or determine what is good and bad?
To talk about WHO is to talk about the source, the authority. Who is qualified and what makes them qualified?

Here are some options:

(1) If a celebrity makes a strong moral statement about an issue, does their celebrity status make them the authority? Before you say yes, be sure to research a little and find out just how much of a train wreck most celebrities are, and the damage they have done to themselves and those close to them. But even if the celebrity is a pretty good person, why would we turn to a celebrity for moral and ethical wisdom? Because we live in a Celebrity Culture, they have much more influence than they deserve. Just listen to the pontification that takes place at the awards shows.

(2) Is it the crowd who decides what is good and evil? If the majority opinion says promiscuous sexuality is good, does that make the majority right? For a lot of people it does! Before and during the Civil War, the majority of southerners believed slavery was morally permissible. Nazi Germany believed extermination of Jews, gypsies, and other non-Aryan groups was necessary (and good and right). The crowd (mob) mentality is powerful, but not authoritative. The majority of the crowd may vote to make something legal, but what is legal is not always what is moral. A law may be morally tolerable but not morally superlative!

(3) Is it the individual who decides? For our culture the answer is a resounding YES. Yes, you the person have the full right and freedom to decide your values. What matters to you? What do you believe is good for you? What do you believe is right for you? You decide! Your happiness and your success is supremely important. If cheating will help you get ahead, cheat. If a little lie will serve your purposes, lie. If a little sexual fun on the side satisfies your urges, go for it. If quitting a commitment makes you happy, bail as soon as you want. You choose and everyone MUST tolerate your choices. In other words, self-centered determinations are the norm and the way to go.

However, what happens then is simply this:

  • Hurt happens. Pain happens. Broken relationships happen. Anarchy happens. Chaos happens.
  • And someone else soon steps in to make some authoritative decisions as to what is right because hurt, pain, brokenness, anarchy, and chaos are just not good for us … or for all of us. It hurts to be on the receiving end of someone else’s self-centered decision.
  • You are nowhere nearly as free as you think you are. Someone, somewhere is making decisions that have more power than you. (See the next point.)

(4) Is it the current dictator or director or person in position of authority who decides? And the answer is often simply YES. The person who has the gold makes the rules. Might makes right, as the saying goes. But history and experience remind us that those with power/gold often make very bad rules that favor the ones in power. I have lots of books on bad leadership in my library, however, most laws give the leader a lot of power once they get into the position that holds power.

(5) The laws and norms of society. So, a group of people who have executive, legislative, and judicial power make rules. They determine what is right and wrong, and then we are obligated to obey what they say and face consequences if we don’t. Try not paying your taxes for a year or two and see what happens. Try drunk driving and go through a police trap and see what happens.  (WAIT! Under no circumstances try drunk driving or not paying your taxes.)

  • We all know we needs rules and norms, otherwise there is anarchy. Think of the TV show “The Purge.” All rules and all consequences are eliminated, and when that happens it is a scary and dangerous world. In “The Purge” you can get away with murder. Whenever we try to live without the law or above the law it gets dangerous and scary.
  • So, the question now is: Where do good rules and norms come from?

(6)  Natural reason and innate intuition. We just sort of know what is right and wrong. Societies through all of history have agreed on quite a few things, like the Golden Rule. You can find versions of the Golden Rule everywhere. It seems that reasonable people have usually agreed on many good things.

  • Our founding fathers held self-evident truths. I won’t go into this, but there is a philosophy called Natural Law that has had immense influence on judicial, legal, constitutional thinking in much of western society.

  • And when people with some degree of expertise and wisdom gather together to talk about these things in meaningful ways, they often come up with some pretty good rules and laws for the good of society. This doesn’t always happen, because even the experts are biased and have blind spots.
  • Sidebar: The ancient Greek philosophers believed the ideal ruler of a city or nation would be the Philosopher-King. They would rule with wisdom, justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance. The early works on ethics by Plato and Aristotle were written with leaders in mind.

But I am sure you are waiting for the final one. It is the one that most Christians subscribe to.

(7) Goodness comes from the Good GOD and it is GOD who gets to decide and tell us what is good and what is evil. God is good and God is uniquely qualified to tell us what is good. God is holy and God is love and God is generous and when God communicates what is good and right, God is right on. And we find God’s will about what is good and bad, right and wrong, in the Bible.

This is why we read, study, reflect, learn, and discuss the Bible so much at Living Word. Truth is there. Wisdom is there. Goodness is there. “He has told you, O man, what is good” (Micah 6:8). And more than that, Jesus, God with us, lived a good life, died a sacrificial death, rose again with power, and is the LORD OF LIFE.

He tells us what is good. He models for us what is good. And he creates in us his own good life. Give thanks to the Lord.

Pastor Brian

Brian Rice