12/12/2014 08:31 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 6) -- Three Theories of Morality

First, some background. At the beginning of my senior college-prep and AP English courses, I gave a nine-week introduction to critical thinking and the classical Greeks. Beyond the study of fallacies, statement classification, and different ways of refuting an argument, students also learned how to critically evaluate the competing claims of theories that purport to answer the same question. One such question that was of utmost importance not only to the Greeks, but also to the biblical vision of human existence was what makes a life moral. What follows are four assignments intended to have students begin thinking critically about three such theories.


There are different ways of classifying theories of morality. The following represents one possible classification: Platonism, Situationism, and Moral Relativism. Each theory is briefly outlined, along with objections.

Platonism: There is an objective, absolute, immutable, eternal moral order which exists independently of man. Man's actions must conform to this moral order for his behavior to be moral. A properly formed conscience puts him in contact with this realm and its moral principles. These moral principles or laws apply to all men, at all times, in all places, and in all situations. Man has only to apply these principles to each situation to determine what he should and should not do. Left to himself, man would only err and commit evil. Obeying these moral laws is often difficult, but necessary, if he desires to lead a moral life. There can be no exceptions to these laws, since there can be no compromise with evil.

Objections to Platonism: (1.) There is no evidence that such an objective, eternal moral order exists. Simply claiming that it exists is not proving that it does. (2.) If man can know only what can be empirically verified, how can he know that such a moral order exists, since this realm is beyond the realm of empirical verification? (3.) If one were to claim knowledge of this moral realm by means other than empirical verification, what would be the basis for this claim? (4.) Would this other source of knowledge merely assume that this absolute moral order existed, or invoke some other means of verification?

(5.) Such a presumed moral order would foster a checklist mentality, which would mechanically apply abstract laws and principles to situations which might be legitimate exceptions not meant to be covered by these principles. (6.) Such an uncritical application of rigid moral principles could result in reflexive judgments, rather than a nuanced and sensitive evaluation of the uniqueness of each moral situation. (7.) This approach to morality could engender a state of psychological infantilism whereby an individual might flee from the personal responsibility of ethical decision by applying rigid moral principles. (8.) Such a moral theory might cause a person to become harsh and inflexible with oneself and self-righteous toward those who did not share one's definition of "true morality."

(9.) Such a system of morality is simply an excuse to judge and condemn others to make oneself feel morally superior. (10.) Such an approach to morality merely fulfills the neurotic needs of those who want to control and subjugate others to themselves through fear and guilt, and to sanctify this behavior in the name of an "objective moral order." (11.) Such a morality appeals to the insecure who need the comfort of fixed and certain answers in an uncertain universe. (12.) The preceding negative psychological effects on the human personality prove that the moral theory that causes them cannot be true. How could a moral theory which claims to be true cause meanness, pettiness, and warped personalities?

Assignment One: (A.) Evaluate each of the above twelve objections. Are they valid? If so, why? If not, why not? Be specific and detailed. Do you feel that you could rebut any of these objections? If so, please do so. (B.) Are fallacies present? If so, what are their technical names, and explain why wouldn't they be valid objections? (C.) List the emotional advantages and disadvantages of holding Platonism as a moral theory. (D.) What conclusions do you draw from this assignment?


Situationism: This is also known as Situation Ethics or Contextualism. There is an absolute moral order, but its laws are not meant to be applied mechanically to every situation. Each situation is different and must be judged on its own merits and in light of its unique set of circumstances. These circumstances alter the manner in which each case must be handled. Moral laws and principles are not so much absolute and unchangeable standards as initial points of departure which illuminate the general moral contours of each situation to a certain degree. Every factor and circumstance in the overall situation must be taken into account. One must consider the entire context and each case in all of its aspects before coming to a final decision.

Objections to Situationism: (1.) How does one know that moral laws are not meant to be applied strictly in every case? The claim that they aren't is simply an assumption which cannot be proven. (2.) How would one know that one weren't deluded into thinking that a particular situation was an exception to an unchanging moral law? (3.) Would sincerity in thinking that a particular case was an exception constitute legitimate proof? (4.) How would one know that one were not simply rationalizing a secret desire to escape the burden of a demanding moral law, and that this secret desire wasn't creating one's "proof"?

(5.) Situationism is simply a thinly disguised excuse to commit wrong and appear blameless to oneself. (6.) Situationism is merely self-gratification which parades about as a "moral theory." (7.) Situationism reflects an inability or unwillingness to live up to the exacting moral standards of an absolute moral order which one knows exists but refuses to accept. (8.) Situationism is an open invitation to live an immoral life in the name of "enlightened moral theory." (9.) If everyone followed the example of the situationists, the results would undermine sound moral principle and the foundations of civil order.

Assignment Two: Evaluate the previous nine objections as you did above with Platonism.


Moral Relativism: There is no objective, absolute moral order - only the icy silence of a brutally indifferent universe. Man does not discover any such moral realm; he invents it to suit his need for sanity and psychological balance. His moral systems differ from age to age and culture to culture. These systems permit him to cope and survive in a meaningless universe. Morality is simply the means man uses to control himself lest social chaos result. Man's temperament, drives, needs and wishes determine the kind of morality he fashions for himself. Climate, environment, economics, history, culture, and social institutions all contribute to shape his moral ideas. Man is simply the unwitting creature of his conditioning, as are his ideals, beliefs, values, and moral systems.

Objections to Moral Relativism: (1.)There is no evidence that such an absolute moral order does not exist. Simply denying that it exists is not proving that it doesn't.(2.) If man can only know what he can verify empirically, how can he know that such a moral order does not exist, since this order is, by definition, beyond the realm of empirical verification? One could only claim that if such a non-empirically verifiable order did exist, one could not know of its existence. One could not deny that it existed, because there could be no means of determining empirically whether it did or not.The claim that it doesn't exist is simply a positivistic act of faith.

(3.)If one were to deny that such a moral order existed, on what basis would one make this a priori denial? Would it be an arbitrary assumption that it didn't exist? (4.)Would attempts to deny its existence be examples of circular reasoning, since one would be appealing to "proofs" which already assumed as proven the very thing one would be trying to prove; namely, that such a moral order didn't exist?(5.)In denying the existence of such an objective moral order, one would simply be trying to escape the moral burden and responsibility which that moral order enjoins.(6.)Would one be rationalizing one's own desires to do wrong with a clear conscience?

(7.)Moral Relativism is nothing else but self-gratification disguised as "moral theory."(8.)Moral Relativism reflects an inability or unwillingness to live up to the exacting moral standards of an absolute moral order which one knows exists but refuses to accept. (9.) Moral Relativism is an open invitation to live an immoral life in the name of "enlightened ethical theory."(10.)If everyone followed the example of the moral relativists, the results would undermine moral principle and the foundations of civil order.(11.)Morals may differ from age to age and culture to culture with respect to non-essentials, but the basic moral principles remain the same despite superficial differences.

(12.) Even if one were to grant that morals do change with respect to essentials from age to age and culture to culture, this would not necessarily prove that there is no objective moral order. It would only mean that some ages and cultures were or still are in the process of developing from an erroneous moral code to one that is progressively more objective, and that, given more time, they would have discovered or will discover the objective moral order, or that those ages or cultures which have not discovered this objective moral order were simply in error because they refused to accept what they inwardly knew to be the true moral order.

(13.)Man discovers, he does not create or invent this objective moral order. If he does not discover it, this is because he is insufficiently morally sensitive, mature, or developed.(14.)Man's needs, drives, and desires have been implanted in him to help him discover this objective moral order. He would not have these needs and drives if the object to which they correspond did not exist.(15.)If there is no absolute moral order, man is no more than an animal devoid of dignity and ultimate purpose.

Assignment Three: Evaluate these fifteen objections as you did above with Platonism and Situationism.


Concluding Assignment: This last assignment asked students to: (A.) show how they would go about proving the truth of any one of these three moral theories; (B.) discuss three major conclusions they drew from critiquing them; (C.) discuss what they discovered about the nature of proof?

After this last assignment was submitted, I waited a week and conducted a discussion about what students had learned - especially whether there had been any surprises. Needless to say, students were taken aback that all three theories could be critically evaluated in the same way and that none was favored over the other. What was unsettling to them was that this kind of critical analysis, by definition, does not take sides.

They recognized the presence of a number of fallacies in the "objections," and understood how much of their own thinking was also fallacious; and that, once again, they were left on their own as to which of the three moral theories was the "right answer." They also understood the pull of emotion in both accepting and rejecting a particular theory, as well as the need for struggling to free oneself of this emotional influence.

Completely surprising to them, however, was the discovery of how difficult it is to prove something without, at the same time, arguing in a circle by using "proofs" which already assume as true the very thing one is trying to prove.