Every year, as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, I have the privilege of delivering a major address to the entire community which formally marks the kick off of a new academic year. I am going to be sharing this message (with some adaptations) with you in four parts. The first part is a diagnosis of one of the deepest problems we face in society, and the remaining days I will propose three solutions, or ways forward.
Since 2002, The Gallup polling group has been issuing an annual report regarding American perceptions of the moral climate in the country. Gallup tracks attitudes about 19 moral issues, ranging from abortion, to doctor-assisted suicide, to extra-marital affairs, as well as general perceptions about the overall moral climate.1 This year American overall perceptions about the moral climate of our country have slipped to its lowest point. In the Gallop Poll, more than 4 in 5 people (81%) now rate the state of moral values in the United States as only fair or poor.
A recent PEW study also asked Americans about their perceptions regarding the moral climate of the country. An astonishing 77% of Americans believe that the moral climate in the country is not only in decline, but they are either “very worried” or “fairly worried” about what this means for the future of our country.2 Studies have been conducted in other countries around the world with similar findings.
The decline in the moral fabric of our country is a serious concern for us all. However, it may not be the biggest challenge we face. Could it be that our dilemma as a nation is actually deeper than even our friends at Gallop or PEW fully recognize? Our problem, more fundamentally, has been the loss of moral categories and, therefore, the loss of a proper moral argument.
One of the more insightful philosophers who has thought about our situation is the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his classic work, After Virtue. He argues that while there is plenty of evidence of declining morals in Western society, the more profound challenge is the inability to even frame a moral argument.3 We no longer have sufficient shared assumptions as a culture to reach any kind of consensus on moral questions, whether based on a broad Judeo-Christian ethic found in Holy Scripture, or even Aristotle’s account of virtues and human flourishing, in his Nicomachean Ethics. Therefore, with the loss of any foundation for moral argument, the only path for contemporary society is to find new ways to accommodate endless human preferences within an increasingly fractured society.
This loss of a moral framework means that, despite the ongoing use of moral language in various cultural arguments, there can be no final resolution, or what MacIntyre calls a “terminus” point.4 He cites various common moral debates within society, demonstrating that because there is no shared moral framework in these national conversations, they end up not being “conversations” at all, with pros and cons evaluated based on a shared moral framework. Rather, they end up as staged shouting matches where we just yell at one another. MacIntrye calls this descent of ethics into shouting in the 21st century Western world “emotivism.” He describes emotivism as the point you reach when “all morals are nothing but expressions of [personal] preference” or “expressions of attitudes or feelings.”5 Chastity, for example, was long held to be a shared virtue in our society. However, MacIntyre argues that chastity “in a world uninformed by either Aristotelian or biblical values will make very little sense to the adherents of the dominant culture.”6
Consider the sheer force of moral questions which are posed to our society today: Is it morally permissible for the state to execute someone for a crime? Are State Lotteries morally acceptable? What is the definition of marriage? Do we have a moral obligation to protect someone who flees a murderous regime and arrives at our border seeking asylum? Is profiling a legally-permissible method of law enforcement? Is it permissible to utilize the services of a doctor to end your own life? Should race be a determinative factor in college admissions? Should insurance companies pay for gender re-assignment surgery? Are reparations for past sins a form of just resolution? This list goes on and on. These are just a few of the questions which have presented themselves to our culture in recent years, and we know how these questions play out.
Quite tragically, our deepest moral questions today are “resolved” not through moral argumentation on either side at all, but through the exertion of my will over your will by means of power. This is probably best exemplified in our culture by the now all-too-familiar 5-4 vote on the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the church has not been immune to this loss of moral argumentation. Similar will-to-power votes have happened in churches under conflict. A recent, well publicized example of this can be seen in the 438 to 384 vote on human sexuality at the General Conference of the United Methodist denomination this past February. While I was pleased that the church stood for historic orthodoxy, I was disappointed that despite over two years of special study on the topic the church never engaged in anything remotely close to a proper moral argument where a case was laid out biblically, historically, exegetically and pastorally, etc. Instead, we only got what all moral argument has become in our day, namely, what MacIntyre calls the “clash of antagonistic wills.”7 This is the deeper malaise which I am highlighting; not merely the decline of morals, but the collapse of the very categories which might make any kind of moral argument possible. We are actually not simply in a crisis of moral epistemology, i.e. how do we know whether something is right or wrong, or the meaning of moral sentences and how they interact one with another which is the hard work of ethicists (that has always been with us). Rather, more profoundly, we are in a crisis of moral ontology. Moral ontology asks whether or not morals objectively exist independently of us. Or, as some might claim, are morals merely mental and societal constructs with no objective foundation? It seems, as a society, the retreat of the Christian worldview has left us in a deep mire, with no objective foundation for the very concept and framework of morality.
Certainly, part of the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary is to recognize the inherent problems with emotivism as a moral solution in our culture, but also to resist the temptation to simply accept this collapsed moral state and engage in some form of power politics, some Christianized version of Nietzsche’s “will to power.”8
Beloved, this is not some esoteric article which has nothing to do with your ministry. This challenge lies at the heart of what you are facing in your lives and ministries, because what goes on in the halls of congress, or the floor of your denominational national meetings, is also going on in Sunday School rooms and homes and schools and in the workplace across America and, in various degrees, around the world.
In future installments, I will explore solutions for addressing this dilemma.
1. Jeffrey M. Jones “Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues,” (Poll conducted, May 3-7, 2017 with 1,011 randomly selected adults 18 or older. www.news.gallup.com (May 11, 2017).
2. Kim Parker, Rich Morin and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts” www.Pewsocialtrends.org (March 21 2019).
3. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2007).
4. MacIntyre, 6.
5. MacIntyre, 12. The early chapters of MacIntyre’s book is dedicated to demonstrating the flaws in emotivism as a philosophical theory to provide moral guidance in a society. For example, in the early 20th century many people felt that racism was morally justified and it required a proper moral argument to convince the wider society that it was “right” to at least begin to dismantle the moral scourge of racism. The resurgence of racism in our own time reveals the deeper tragedy that the moral argument upon which the fight against racism was waged has become eroded and there is no longer a sufficient moral framework for addressing an issue as important as racism.
6. MacIntyre, 232.
7. MacIntyre, 9. McIntyre demonstrates the vast difference between the statements, “this is good” or “this is right” from statements like “I approve of this” or “I think this is best.”
8. Nietzsche’s so-called “genealogy of morals”, as it turns out, is not traced back far enough. The source of all morals is God’s own being, grounded in his existence as pure love and holiness.