Sometimes no greater point can be made than by comparing polar opposites. And, however ugly that comparison may appear, if to serve a greater purpose of clarifying higher truths, it is well worth the inquiry. Perhaps no two people in the history of the world have been separated by such a gulf of a difference than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Adolf Hitler. Devoid of conscience (or violator of it), Hitler left one of the most indelible marks of devastation, inhumane mass exterminations and a war campaign that would see the entire world unravel, causing up to 40,000,000 deaths. Dr. King, appealing to the conscience of a nation, opened the eyes of that nation to show it its blatant hypocrisy. One found it permissible, and even his right, to exact force and eradicate what he deemed to be the lower races. The other, persisting in peace against a horrid injustice and blatant hatred, to free millions from their bondage. One would hold that the Arian race was supreme and therefore needed to exterminate all “undesirables.” The other preached the table of brotherhood. One judged by the color of the skin. The other, by the content of the character. One is notably the evilest person ever to live. The other, one of the noblest characters.
And with the preface in place, perhaps a question that’s sure to rattle the conscience of any person: which of these men was a better man, and why? Does the answer feel too obvious? Who in their right mind would pick Hitler as the better man? By every known virtuous thought, the conscience that screams for those injustices, now shouts that there is no comparison. But how can we be sure that Dr. King is the better man and not Hitler? Is there an objective set of moral duties and values that make this fact known? Surely, to appeal to goodness requires first knowledge of the direction one ought to take. Or are we simply expounding a mere preference, in which case all directions are equally valid? Now, if we’re simply inventing moral laws, then there is no way for us to discriminate between the actions of these two very different men.
The only way in which we can be certain that the moral values of Martin Luther King were supreme to those of Hitler is if we had non-arbitrary objective moral laws that we were considering. Now, within atheism, such notions of objective moral laws are eerily missing. After all, without a transcendent objective set of moral laws, who’s to say what’s morally supreme and what’s morally inferior. Within a reality of nature being red in tooth and claw, what is there really to give us any reason to say that King was a better man than Hitler? As agnostic professor and philosopher of science Michael Ruse put it,
“Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, [ethics] is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is illusory . . .”1
We either have to invent right or wrong on a relative sense or we have to discover them. Ethical subjectivism would tell us that whatever a person thinks or feels is morally right, is right for him. Ethical objectivism, on the other hand, tell us that there is binding moral order independent of human opinion and/or approval, objectively right. Now, if there is no God, do we have adequate justification to claim that there exists objective right and wrong? We do not, as such truths require transcendence. It is then, fairly compelling, that only within a reality in which God is known to exist and to provide objective transcendent moral laws, can we appeal to someone being truly wrong on the basis of objective laws imposed on everyone alike.
Now, some mistake moral laws to be those that echo the laws of a justice system or vice versa, but human beings have had plenty of civil laws that were at one point or another, immoral. As Dr. King put it,
“Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”2
Individual Moral Relativism
If moral laws are not objective, then they have to be subjective, making them merely relative. Within moral relativism, one alternative is that moral laws are relative to individuals. Essentially ‘whatever floats your boat’ is your set of moral laws, and whatever I like is mine. But, if a right is whatever each person thinks is right, then nothing can be truly wrong. Yet, it seems intuitively obvious that moral thinking of some people (as in this case) is wrong. There are some people that are definitely wrong.
If moral laws are dependant on personal whims, there is no rational way to do any moral deliberation, and rational thoughts take a back seat to personal desires. No one can arrive at a moral conclusion. Since there is no way for a person’s taste to be invalid or wrong, we’d have to go by merely how we feel. However, since there is no rationale involved in cultivating a case for moral relativism, and it is based merely on preference, the case for moral relativism would be proposed in spite of our moral intuitions, its foundations planted firmly in mid-air. After all, how else would we differentiate Dr. King and Hitler without some objective canon? How do we determine what is a vice and what is a virtue? How do we determine who was a better man if they simply both did what they thought was right?
Although many of our common experiences have given us loosely agreed upon moral conventions, and therefore look to be objective, there is really no reason to think these to be truly objective since they are coming to us from ourselves. They simply demonstrate more or less of a consensus of opinion or a reflection of what we hold to be true to begin with. This is easily demonstrated for us by cultures who throughout history have had an immoral consensus view on various topics. Moral relativism is relative all the way down to what each person thinks, and they are descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, they can tell us the way things are, not the way things ought to be.
Cultural Moral Relativism
Now, if we were to press this issue harder, we may find solutions to the problems of merely personal moral taste by appealing to evolved cultural moral laws. In the evolutionary view, ethics have evolved too. But this presents us with other problems. First, culture is a fairly difficult thing to define in our pluralistic age. And what if there is division even among the culture itself.
Now, if whatever my culture says is right, is right, then it is going to be almost impossible to deliberate between the moral actions of various cultures. No one culture can legitimately criticize the moral actions of another culture. International disputes, genocide, rape, incest, torture and any other heinous act could not be rightfully objected to.
If moral laws are merely cultural, then there is no possibility for reform. In fact, reform would be a nonsensical term. One culture correcting the actions of another would be foolish since they are each free to establish their own moral laws. Should slavery have been confronted? If the South thought it permissible to discriminate against blacks, and it is the result of their cultural moral laws, then no one should bother them. They should be left alone. The North should not have told the south how to do things.
Did Martin Luther King have a compelling reason (other than that he didn’t like it) to fight against discrimination? Should he have fought for equality? And why should another culture with an alternate set of preferences have eventually conceded to his mere preferences if they were not ultimately rooted in an objective foundation, which ultimately spoke to and woke up their own conscience?
Should we have forcefully stopped Martin Luther King Jr.? Should Adolf Hitler have been stopped? Whenever we are faced with a confrontation between the ideas and actions of one party versus another, we get a clear picture of where the points of tension are. But what would have happened, for example, if Hitler was successful at gaining control of the entire world? Would he then be able to make a case that within ‘his’ rule such acts were permissible? Would he have been capable of dictating his brand of moral order? What would happen if he was able to brainwash the entire world into thinking that his moral precepts were correct? Would that of necessity change the moral laws under which everyone was to operate? It certainly would not.
Had Hitler been successful, we would simply be trying to fight against yet another injustice, and the reason why we would know that to be injustice would be yet another reason why we would be appealing to some rule that transcended Hitler himself. “Might” does not make right. It simply has the capability to force more massive injustices.
Objective Moral Laws
No one can rightfully call a specific action to be right or wrong unless there is a non-arbitrary objective canon by which all actions can be measured, that is unless universal and valid ethical principles exist outside of human convention. There are moral principles that are simply true. These non-conventional laws are true, even when held by the minority, even a very small minority. Lying is generally wrong unless killing innocent people is wrong regardless of whether these positions are supported or rejected by world leaders or majority views.
People have lived wrongly violating moral laws. This identification itself is a good indication to us that these laws are independent of our mere opinion. Ethical principles have not changed, however. We have simply seen people come along and change the perspectives and allowed the people to identify and live consistently with the moral law.
Since objective moral laws must exist, and the most logically consistent means by which they can be prescribed to human beings is through some transcendence source, it is fairly compelling to view these laws as those coming to us from the very mind of God. However, within naturalism, the mechanism of survival of the fittest allows very little room for it. As such naturalism cannot posit some sort of objective set of rules by which everyone is inclined to abide by. It must embrace moral relativism. But it is unable to find the moral foothold to build such broad objective foundations by which it may escape the implications that God as the only means by which any objective set of moral laws may possibly exist. In defeat, one atheist conceded this after reading atheist, Sam Harris’s book trying to argue in this regard by saying,
‘A belief that makes people happy is no more likely to be true than one that makes people miserable, but if you’re writing a book about the importance of well-being the book is a conversation starter to be sure. But by the time I got to the end I was left with no real answers…with the feeling that Harris, like everyone else is frantically dog-paddling to escape the quagmire of moral emptiness that’s forever sucking at our post-modern minds, while tipping an intellectual bow in its direction. Here’s the point where a reluctant nihilist fails to find moral direction in science and has another beer.’
It’s hard to get away from your basic moral intuitions. Doing so, generally, moves people into outright rebellion with their conscience. If merely relative societal norms, these laws should not have the capability to provoke our sense of guilt. And merely relative notions of right and wrong cannot give us any basis which can help us say that Martin Luther King Jr. was a better man than Adolf Hitler. It is only under an objective set of moral laws with which we can make such judgment about personal character. They are not whims. They are not preferences. They are not desires. Martin Luther King Jr. was objectively right for fighting against injustice and inequality, and Adolf Hitler was objectively wrong for exterminating millions of people. We don’t merely prefer Dr. King to Hitler. We know him to be a better man!
Additional Resources About Martin Luther King Jr. and Morality
- What is Equality?
- Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Evolution
- What is Objective Morality?
- Do Objective Moral Values Exist?
1 Ruse, Michael. The Darwinian Paradigm: Essays on Its History, Philosophy, and Religious Implications (London: Routledge, 1989) 268.
2 King, Martin L. Letter from Birmingham Jail. Stamford, Connecticut: The Overbrook Press, 1968. Print.