Lately, I have spent a lot of my time reading philosophers, mostly of the atheist persuasion. I am a bit of a philosophy nerd, but tonight I took a break from it to try to advance my kindle progress bar in Dostoevsky’s grand Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s book is basically philosophy in story form-excellent story form. In the book, one of Dostoevsky’s characters comes to the brutal realization that without God everything is morally permissible. The question that arises is, if God does not exist, then on what basis do we say that an action is morally good or evil? As I was reading, I heard a song coming from the TV that I had never heard before titled Follow your Arrow, by Kacey Musgraves. As I listened to the lyrics, I realized that the song is a perfect representation of our culture's full embrace of moral relativism.
By far, my favorite topic in philosophy is a subject called metaethics: a subject which deals with the foundations for moral principles. Metaethics raises the question, on what basis do we make moral truth claims? In discussing moral foundations, one of the most influential philosophers ever, David Hume, asked a question that has haunted philosophers since; “how does one get an “ought” from an “is”?” Hume’s point is that though science tells us what the world is like, for example: flowers need sunlight to grow, the distance from the earth to the moon is 238,900 miles, light moves at the speed of 186,000 mph, lions eat zebras, etc., science does not tell us what the world should be like; it doesn't tell us how people "ought" to behave. So while we can say that some actions are obviously bad for specific people, it is a very different thing to say that some actions are morally evil for people to commit. I might feel that you murdering me is going to cause me and my family to have a bad day, but on what basis do I say that it is evil and wrong? This is precisely the predicament that moral relativists find themselves in.
Returning to Kacey Musgraves’ song, it is basically about following your heart wherever it leads. Since everyone has a different opinion on how you should live your life, you should listen to your heart instead of theirs. The song’s message is clear - be happy with who you are no matter if you are overweight or skinny, religious or not, sexually immoral or moral, drink alcohol or don’t, do drugs or not, or are gay or straight. Musgraves’ song is basically about the worship of pleasure and self-acceptance. But what if you are a person who genuinely needs to change? Should you ignore that and follow your arrow anyway?
Another issue is that while the song appears to stand against the idea of people pleasing, it actually doesn’t. The song’s message is about person pleasing and the only person you should aim to please is yourself; after all, as the song says, “Cause you just get so many trips around the sun. Yeah, you only, only live once.”
For those who embrace this song’s creed for human existence, life is about enjoying yourself and being who you are (hedonism), because this is the only life you get. I find myself wondering, does Musgraves actually believe we should follow our arrow wherever it leads? I honestly hope she doesn’t and can't see how she could. Should the rapist, murderer, and child molester follow their heart’s desires wherever they lead? What about the stock trader who has the option to make millions off of insider trading? I suspect that Musgraves would instantly respond, “no, of course not.” But why? Why “ought” people not do these things? After all, what happened to following your arrow wherever that leads? Clearly that criteria is only being applied selectively and can't serve as an all-encompassing world view. So how does the moral relativist distinguish good actions from evil actions? Their own personal preferences? Why should their preference be considered superior to another person's?
The world view that is demonstrated by this song is inconsistent and can’t stand by its own claims. In contrast, the Christian world view has an objective moral standard by which to distinguish between good and evil, not just good and bad. Logically, if this objective moral standard is true, it is binding regardless if one choses to accept it or not. What I mean is, even if the rapist believes his actions are morally permissible, he is wrong in the same way as the person who believes that 2 + 2 = 5. We can tell him why he is wrong based on a reason greater than, "I don't like your moral choices." If our moral foundation is based on subjective moral preferences (moral relativism) and we tell the rapist he "ought" not, the rapist is logically free to respond, "Who are you and why should I care about your moral opinions?" In my experience, the moral relativist usually will respond with how it's bad for society, or how it's wrong because it causes harm, but that assumes a moral foundation that is not provided by the moral relativist’s world view. My favorite author of all time, C. S. Lewis, makes this point clear when he writes:
Now, of course, it is perfectly true that safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other. It is one of the most important truths in the world. But as an explanation of why we feel as we do about right and wrong it just misses the point if we ask: "Why ought I to be unselfish?" and you reply "Because it is good for society," we may then ask, "Why should I care what's good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?" and then you will have to say, "Because you ought to be unselfish"—which simply brings us back to where we started. You are saying what is true, but you are not getting any further. If a man asked what was the point of playing football, it would not be much good saying "in order to score goals," for trying to score goals is the game itself, not the reason for the game, and you would really only be saying that football was football—which is true, but not worth saying. In the same way, if a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no good replying, "in order to benefit society," for trying to benefit society, in other words being unselfish (for "society" after all only means "other people"), is one of the things decent behaviour consists in; all you are really saying is that decent behaviour is decent behaviour. You would have said just as much if you had stopped at the statement, "Men ought to be unselfish."[i]
The Christian world view has a foundation for "ought" claims, while the atheist's view clearly does not. In evolution, natural selection functions by the strong eating the weak and selfish behavior towards anyone not carrying your genes. So on what basis does the atheist say that we should reject our natural impulses?
Atheism is most often connected with naturalism - the idea that existence is only explainable by natural events, not supernatural events like God or miracles. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias poses a crushing challenge to the naturalist by asking “how an impersonal amoral first cause through a non-moral process, produces a moral basis for life?"[ii] It is only from the vantage point of an objective standard that we can stand up and say "thou shalt not" with any true meaning. If one rejects the Judeo-Christian objective standard, what standard do they have to replace it with? If one relies on a subjective standard (based in one's own feelings or preferences) they have completely removed their ability to make "ought" statements that have any meaning or value - they have given up their ability to hold that human rights are real.
So, I reject the message of this song as I believe that some actions are evil and should not be committed regardless of the justification or reasons for them. The foundation I stand on to make this claim is the Judeo-Christian objective standard found within the Bible. If someone has a better standard that is objectively true, I would love to see it.
[i] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 19.
[ii] Ravi Zacharias, Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend, 189.