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Morality – a scientific approach?

Morality can actually lend itself to scientific derivation – when one observes societies that have thrived, and those that died.

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Can morality lend itself to a scientific approach? That is, can we arrive at an objectively preferable moral code? That question has now become vital, because for too long, Western civilization has answered it, no. As a result, key leaders of Western society have embarked on a course leading potentially to human extinction. One would expect people, seeing the approaching result, to turn away from that course. But that is not happening – and to make it happen, one must ask: can morality be something more than a matter of personal belief and preference?

Morality – a definition

Morality is about value – and value requires a standard. Every measurement determines value – and so does any exchange of goods and/or services. No one can measure or trade anything without a standard – and no two people can agree on an exchange, or even agree to coexist, without first agreeing on a standards.

Every person acts morally – but, sadly, people have not agreed upon a standard. One might act according to one value standard only – one’s own immediate good or feeling. The result we call a sociopath.

Clinically [the word sociopath] means one who has no sense of moral obligation whatsoever. From Deathtrap by Ira Levin

The key word is obligation. The sociopath sets no value on the rights or feelings of persons other than himself. A society of sociopaths will not long exist; eventually they will eliminate one another until one – or no one – remains. So obviously sociopathic morality, such as it is, is inadequate. Adequacy is of course a value judgment – so obviously no one can even discuss morality without setting a standard. But of course no one can discuss mathematics, either, without a value standard.

Toward an objective moral standard

Before anyone can begin to set a standard of morality, one must begin with a standard more basic. That standard is truth. Without truth, trust cannot exist – and without trust, human beings cannot coexist.


Once human beings have agreed on truth, now we can look at recorded history. History tells us what moral standards are better than others – by showing us which societies survive the longest, and what eventually destroys them.

Will Durant (The Story of Civilization) observed that:

Religion attends the birth of civilization; philosophy accompanies it to its grave.

That statement might sound facile, but only because humans have relied on religion to set their moral standards. “The gods would or would not be pleased with a right or wrong act,” people have said since society began. Indeed, Divine pleasure or displeasure was the typical expression to decide what acts are right and wrong. The problem is: some so-called gods take pleasure in acts that not only make their societies repugnant and fearsome, but which also corrode their societies and cause them to “eat their own.”

At least now we have the benefit of the experience of thousands of years of recorded history. That at least gives us examples of codes of morality that work – or fail.

A workable morality

So what really makes a civilization thrive? What distinguishes a workable morality from an unworkable one? A civilization thrives when its members cooperate toward the protection of life. And because human beings are born, grow old, and die, a civilization must educate its succeeding generations to take their places to keep it working. So the best civilizations value life and family. And because certain things can threaten everyone’s well-being, each member of the civilization will place a value on friendship to help meet any threats.


Thomas Jefferson famously said the most important rights are life, liberty and property (which he called “the pursuit of happiness”). To protect those, humans set up government – to make sure those who reside in a civilization each respect those rights with respect to others. And the most basic level of government is family. Any civilization respects and protects family – or it dies. In fact, human beings will instinctively protect family units even when the government disrespects them for this.

Moral laws – obvious and not so obvious

Morality forms the basis of law – so that governments do “legislate morality.” Of course some laws are so obvious, only the sociopath would seriously advocate their abolition, repeal, or lack of enforcement. These are the criminal laws – against murder, rape, robbery, assault, and so forth. Sadly, we now see a movement to remove the only apparatus that enforces those laws. But if the government does not enforce the basic criminal statutes, others will. We call them vigilance committees – groups that enforce such laws summarily. That, of course, is dangerous – because truth suffers with such summary enforcement.

Less obvious – and thus requiring a scientific approach to law and therefore morality – are what some call “crimes without victims.” Such laws forbid things like:

  • Sales of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products to minors. (And for that matter, recognition of the very concept minor as opposed to adult.)
  • Sales of some kinds of drugs to anyone, adult or minor alike.
  • The practice of medicine without a license, and the distribution of certain drugs without a licensed physician’s approval or “prescription.”
  • The production and distribution of pornography, whether involving minors or not, and the distribution of it to minors.

Laws regulating marriage – and discouraging divorce – also fall into this category.

A moral basis beyond personal preference

Many have objected to such laws, saying that they are matters of personal preference. Such objectors really mean that they hold morality itself as a matter of personal preference, therefore subjective only. But challenge those objectors with the spectacle of a murder, and they usually will call for laws against murder. They have made a moral judgment. In their judgment, the balance between personal license and respect for the rights of others requires laws forbidding some behaviors but not others.

In one extreme case in 1924, two students at the University of Chicago, named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, murdered a 14-year-old boy as a “true test of their superior intellect.” This case saw two kinds of dramatic treatment:

  • The 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, which famously saw adaptation into film by Sir Alfred Hitchcock, and
  • The 1956 novel Compulsion by Meyer Levin, which saw a 1959 film adaptation by Richard Fleischer, starring Orson Welles.

Of the two, Rope is most instructive. The two killers drew inspiration from their teacher, who taught that morality was for lesser beings. Actor James Stewart, who played the teacher for Hitchcock, gave the most resounding refutation of that notion in film history.

So whoever objects to laws against “crimes without victims,” must make sure that a wrong act does not make victims. The basis for Amendment XVIII was that alcohol abuse and alcoholism do make victims – of those who depend on the offender to provide for and protect them.

The Christian moral system

So a properly moral society protects its families. That includes forbidding certain influences that can weaken the family. It could also mean defining family in terms of the production and training of the next generation. That’s what makes certain preferences immoral – because they degrade the idea of family, which is central to a sound society.

The Christian moral system turns out to be the best of all. It gets most of its attention by proscribing sexual sins of all kinds, defining marriage as one man and one woman, and reserving sexual activity to such a unit. It also frowns upon divorce, thus affording to children a stable environment – and a good “academy of adult living.”

This system starts with the Ten Commandments, and especially those beginning with the Fourth. That Commandment prescribes one day in seven to rest, and reflect on one’s relationship with God. The French Revolutionary Committee on Weights and Measures famously tried to redefine the week as ten days instead of seven. Emperor Napoleon swiftly reverted to a calendar with a seven-day week. The other Commandments command honor to parents, who are the heads of family. The last five, of course, forbid murder, sexual mischief (and more broadly, cheating), theft, perjury, and covetousness. With these commandments, God established the basic rights of human beings and principles of justice.

Paul of Tarsus – and John of Jerusalem – gave attention to other forms of sexual mischief, and to drug abuse. (See, for example, Revelation 9:21.)


How the “Western oligarchs” have inverted morality

The West is in moral crisis today – because those who have arrogated to themselves the authority to write its laws, inverted morality – that is, turned it upside down. Too many people celebrate this moral inversion. They cheer refusal to prosecute the most basic criminal acts, and measures compelling others to recognize as “marriages” and “families” certain associations that do not qualify. But few people realize that those oligarchs have substituted their morality for the Christian morality that once formed the basis of Western civilization (and Russian civilization also). Their standard of value is nature, which to them means: the wild. Humans are a blight on planet Earth, so anything that discourages procreation and encourages depopulation is now “moral.”

So when Mike Shellenberger decries those who insist on treating sufferers from “gender dysphoria” with surgical mutilation and hormonal poisoning, he misses the point. The point goes far beyond decrying such treatment as bad medicine. It is that all practices that threaten the family, by limiting its size or especially substituting for it, are wrong.

That is the point on which moral thinkers must make up their minds to agree. This makes a Christian reawakening the more important. Will Durant was correct up to a point. The Christian system, including its ethical system, will save our civilization.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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