In To Have and Have Not Ernest Hemingway expressed with paper and ink some moral dilemmas of flesh and spirit. “I don’t know who made the laws,” said a man who committed sin—a crime, actually—to feed his family, “but I know there ain’t no law that you got to go hungry.” A boy, a Cuban revolutionary, declared that he would do anything to free his country from tyranny: “I do things I hate. But I would do things I hate a thousand times more.”
To eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil implied that those who ate would know good from evil, but the distinction isn’t always so distinct. Erst kommt das Fressen, wrote German Communist Berthold Brecht, dann kommt die Moral (“First comes food, then comes morals”). We might utter gut-stuffed protests against Brecht, but who could argue that one’s discernment between right and wrong blurs on an empty stomach (especially your child’s)?
Mark Twain’s Huck Finn convinced himself that his own soul was damned to hell because he helped Miss Watson’s slave escape. In the 1600s Thomas Hobbes said that good and evil have no meanings apart from what humans, in a specific time and place, decide it is. Four hundred years before Christ, Socrates battled moral relativism pretty much for the same reasons people battle it today, 2,000 years after Christ. Niccolò Machiavelli argued that the political leader must “learn how not to be good.” Nietzsche said that we have to get “beyond good and evil,” because these concepts have worn out their usefulness. From The Rules of the Game, a pre-World War II French movie, a character says, “The truly terrible thing about this life, monsieur, is that everyone has their own reasons.” In 2010 atheist jihadist Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape sought to establish a scientific basis for morality, claiming that “morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” Eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called conscience “thou infallible judge of good and evil,” which helps explain the German Reich chancellor’s sentiment: “If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong; and even if I do, I know that I have acted in good faith.”
In the Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Immanuel Kant attempted to create a basis for morality on pure reason, before, and even apart from, experience or consequences. He thought he found it with the Categorical Imperative, his metaphysical law for morality: “Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will.” In other words, do only what you want everyone else to do. Sounds nice, but what if you universally will that everyone with one Jewish grandmother die in Auschwitz?
Morality is either like sunshine, coming from above, transcendent; or it comes from within us, human creations such as free funk jazz and abstract expressionism. If the latter, then if all humans decided that anyone with one Jewish grandparent deserved death, how could it be wrong? If morality’s a human concoction alone, as subjective as tastes in music or in shoes, then Stalin’s gulags are no morally worse than the American prison at Guantanamo Bay.
I’m not denying that atheists don’t or can’t live by moral codes that make them good citizens, in some cases better than their theistic neighbors. (After all, when was the last time an atheist flew a jetliner into a skyscraper?) Atheists just can’t base morality on anything absolute. Maybe they don’t want to, but this subjectivism can end up justifying a lot of wrong.
The only answer is a morality from above, one transcending culture, prejudice, jurisprudence, tradition, logic, custom, even conscience (see the chancellor’s quote). That’s what God’s moral law, the Ten Commandments, is: a transcendent universal morality, the eternal template for good and evil. The law shows us exactly how God Himself defines these things.
Of course, we’re still stuck with human subjectivism: some who believe in “Thou shalt not kill” go ape over abortion but have no problem with lethal injection; others, vice versa. So we’re not done with the debate, but at least with God’s law we have the absolute starting point.