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Morality without Authority

I’ve been listening to a series on Radio 4 called Morality in the 21st Century, presented by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The programmes do an excellent job of showing the collapse of shared moral purpose, especially in the West. It shows that left to the market (capitalism) or the mob (cultural Marxism) there is no absolute morality and careful thinkers realise the trajectory of this is terrifying.

Sacks interviews many experts in social science, economics and psychology.

Regaining a Sense of Responsibility

One such was Jordan Peterson. He has become immensely popular, including amongst many Christians for his passionate plea that everybody, especially men, needs to take responsibility and through doing that find meaning and purpose.

Much of what Peterson says shows a healthy respect for the bible narrative and values. He has been great at pointing out the bankruptcy of a philosophy that individual happiness is the goal of life. He shows that it doesn’t work: it sets unachievable goals, is destructive to society and stifles any progress. He thinks purpose is more important than happiness. But ultimately, his god is individual satisfaction by finding meaning and purpose. It’s basically a utilitarian argument for morality. It won’t work either because there is no agreement on what is good, responsible behaviour and not much incentive to do it anyway.

Fair Trade

Later in the series Economist Noreena Hertz predicts that ultimately the owners of the means of production will use artificial intelligence to do most of the work and in that day, what will remain for the rest of us? Her best hope is that the market might act morally and purchase things that are made in ways that are morally good. She takes some encouragement from the growth of ethical investments. But who defines good ethics? What philosophy out there values human life over market forces or mob rule? And who’s to say that we should?


In another episode Sacks speaks with Scientist and Philosopher Steven Pinker. He agrees with the Rabbi that religion has some benefit in giving us stories and a sense of community.  But in his view we have to evaluate the value of any religious teaching by the higher authority of humanism. He cheerfully believes that things can be shown to be right or wrong. The humanist definition of goodness is about what makes humans prosper, treating other people as we would expect to be treated and using power and knowledge for the benefit of the community to improve the human condition. But amazingly for such an intelligent man, he has no realisation that he might have inherited those values from some higher authority. He gives no basis to prove that those are in fact good values, assuming it to be self-evident. Nor does he engage with the reality that most of us do not do those things. Yet another bankrupt philosophy.

The Author with the Authority

Love and morality must have a source – an outside authority – or they are meaningless and arbitrary. You may have a philosophy that says we should be loving and do the least harm to the least number of people but the definition of love and harm has to come from somewhere or the statement carries no weight.

And so, throughout the series, the experts mourn the loss of morality but express their desperate desire that somehow there could be more of it. It’s a thoroughly depressing series. It offers no hope. We need something better.

We have gospel hope because morality shows us God is real. The desire for morality shows the reality of a higher authority. If morality is transcendental (something solid and real but beyond and outside of us) it points us to the reality of God. He made people in his image and morality reflects something of his nature. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. But we instinctively know that objective values do exist and thus we must conclude that God exists.

But more than proving that God exists by our yearning for goodness and truth, we have hope because we can introduce people to the author of morality, the one with authority to define what is good and the Saviour to take way the guilt of our failure to act morally and to give our lives meaning and purpose.

Now why won’t the BBC give us a 15-part series on that?


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