It’s really a simple question. It is one I have wanted to ask many times. Yet, for many people, it seems to be unanswerable.
I remember the first time I asked the question. I was talking to a neighbor. We were talking about raising kids. Mine are grown adults. Her two children are both too young for school. She had complimented me about my adult children, that they seemed to have their heads on straight. I said that, yes, I think that’s because we raised them according to the truth in the Bible, which describes right and wrong, evil and good.
I know my family seems an oddity to her. She has never encountered a family where the parents and the kids are all Christian. She has only seem the older generation embrace Christianity, while their offspring rebel. I certainly know good Christian parents who have attempted to raise their kids to be Christians, only to see them abandon Christ. We have been blessed never to have experienced that in our family.
But my interest was not about raising kids. It was about right and wrong.
I thanked her for her compliment about my children, and then told her I wanted to ask her a question:
Where do you get your morality from? How do you know what is right and wrong?
She was taken aback. She didn’t really know what to say. I could see that she was searching in the recesses of her mind for an answer. It didn’t come.
My neighbor is agnostic, while her husband is atheist. I had known this for awhile. I have been curious for years about how someone can know right from wrong if they have no underlying moral map. Actually, I figured that nonbelievers probably have some moral map, but it just wasn’t apparent to me. Maybe it’s the golden rule. Maybe it’s a hodgepodge of different beliefs. What, I asked, did they rely on to distinguish between right and wrong? How do they know so they can guide their children?
I anticipated some possible answers. One possible answer is that right is doing what is legal and wrong is doing what is illegal, but there are some significant problems with that answer. First, governments don’t always do the right thing. They may pass a law that we believe is wrong. For example, slavery was legal in many states until the Civil War. If we were anti-slavery, would we say that, because slavery is legal, then it must be right? Of course not. There are many examples of unjust laws or unjust judicial decisions. Do we change our morality based on what’s legal? That would be absurd.
In addition, some things may be wrong even if there is no law against it. For instance, most people believe it is wrong to lie. However, telling a lie, except in certain legal matters, is not a crime. Many people condemn the act of lying, but they don’t want to see a law against all lying.
Another possible source for our morality is our friends who surround us. After all, we do tend to hang around people who believe the same way we do. And we are tremendously influenced by people we are close to. Unfortunately, there are some things wrong with this view as well. The biggest problem is that it’s groupthink. A group may have views about whether something is right or wrong, but try expressing a point of view that runs counter to the group. You immediately get isolated. You may even find yourself unwelcome in that group. The pressure to conform in a group is strong. Many people follow the norms of a group, not because they believe what the group believe in their heart, but because they don’t want to get kicked out of the group.
And then there’s the same problem: What if the group believes the wrong thing? Do I just change my moral map whenever the group changes theirs?
Returning to my story, my neighbor had no answer. I followed up by asking simple questions like, “Does it make sense to use ‘survival of the fittest’ to guide our morality? If that principle is true, wouldn’t it be okay to simply live each day taking advantage of others so we end up on top? Or if nothing is right or wrong, wouldn’t it be best to simply do whatever we want, act anyway we want, as long as it’s something we want to do? What would prevent us from robbing a bank?”
It was all so unexpected for my poor neighbor. I apologized that I wasn’t trying to give her a hard time. It was truly just something I wanted to know. How did she know what was right and wrong?
I’ve asked that same question about right and wrong to others since then. Whenever I ask a nonbeliever, I get the same answer. They don’t know how to know what’s right and wrong.
We all need a moral map. We need moral maps just like we need geographical maps.
In times past, Americans used a variety of ways to figure out how to drive from city to city. There were few, if any, maps to help drivers navigate the different types of roads. Often, drivers just had to strike out on their own and figure out each road on its own.
In the early 20th century, when Americans started driving cars out of town to go to other cities, we didn’t have the same infrastructure we have today. Not all roads were paved. Not all roads had clear signs. Not every town had a gas station. And the roads often wound around the countryside, not necessarily trying to go the straightest path. Many Americans used the Official Automobile Blue Book. It gave step by step instructions for going from one town to the next. Eventually, you could find your way to where you wanted to go. If you didn’t read the book correctly, you could end up in the wrong place.
Later, travel maps were created. These were foldable maps that could fit into your glove compartment (assuming you could fold the maps back the way they were originally folded). They were an improvement, but many people don’t follow maps well. It was still very easy to end up on the wrong road and at the wrong destination.
Today, practically every American who has a cell phone knows how to use the GPS feature of their phone to get them from one point to another. Want to go to a new restaurant you heard about? Just plug it in your GPS. Want to get to that marathon in another city? Just plug in in your GPS. Want to do a cross-country trip? Just plug it into your GPS. You will get turn-by-turn audio and visual directions making it very easy to getting to your destination. It is nearly impossible (but still possible) to miss your destination.
Geographical maps show you where you came from, where you are going, and various routes that will take you away from your destination. Many of us Americans would never dream of driving to a new location without using our GPS.
Unfortunately, it is not the same with our moral maps. As a Christian, I know what my moral map is. It is the Bible. It tells me where I came from and how to get where I want to go. And it tells me the roads that will only take me further away from where I want to go.
A good moral map can do that as well. Unfortunately, many of us in today’s society are like American drivers at the beginning of the 20th century. They have an idea of where they want to go, but they don’t have a clue how to get there.
We’re all free to find our own way in this world. The good thing is that there is a map easily available to those who want to follow it. For those who insist on finding their own way, I hope you find the Destination.