At work we sometimes discuss issues like abortion and euthanasia and we always end up arguing. The others say I should follow my opinion and they will follow theirs. Is morality a matter for each person to decide or are there objective standards that apply to all?
You ask a very important question, about which there is much confusion.
In preparing this column, I put the question “Is morality objective?” into a well-known search engine, and virtually all the articles that came up espoused the view that morality is not objective – the same for everyone – but subjective, a matter of personal opinion. So your question is relevant indeed.
Statements like the following abound. Morality is just a matter of personal choice.
If I think abortion is acceptable, am I not entitled to my opinion and to have an abortion?
If you think abortion is wrong, don’t have one, but don’t condemn me for holding a different opinion.
There are no moral absolutes. Morality is a matter for each person to decide.
In fact, morality is not something for each person to decide. It is objective and there are moral absolutes.
How can we be so sure of this?
Some people base their argument on the Bible, which states very clearly as far back as the time of Moses that killing the innocent, committing adultery, stealing and lying are always wrong.
The Ten Commandments say so. But many people do not believe in the Bible, so such arguments will not convince them.
Therefore, it is always better to base our reasoning on something more fundamental and universal than the Bible.
This something is nothing other than human nature itself.
To understand from the outset what we mean by human nature, it is simply what all humans have in common, just as dog nature is what all dogs have in common, and tree nature is what all trees have in common. It’s what makes us humans rather than something else.
Now, as a result of being human, we have a fundamental dignity: we are someone, not something. We have an intellect and free will and we can weigh up alternative courses of action and, after considering the possible consequences of each, choose which to follow.
And we are naturally social, called to live in communion with others, whether in marriage and the family or in the broader society.
We need the presence of others at the same time as we are called to contribute to the good of others.
In view of our dignity and our social nature, we realise that certain forms of behaviour, or moral choices, are simply harmful to the wellbeing of individuals or of society.
Actions like killing a child, whether when still in the womb or after birth, raping a woman, stealing others’ property or burning down their house are always harmful to the good of the individual and of society. They do not contribute to human flourishing. They are intrinsically evil. They are objectively wrong, not a matter of personal opinion. They are moral absolutes.
Pope St John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis splendor (1993), puts it like this: “Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsic malum): they are suchalways and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances” (VS 80).
The Pope goes on to quote the Second Vatican Council, which lists as examples of such acts, whatever “is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children…” (GS 27).
Acts such as these are wrong because they contradict the good of the human person and of society, not because they are forbidden by the Bible.
Rather the Bible forbids them because they are wrong in themselves. So yes, morality is objective, not just a matter of personal opinion.