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The highest morality

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It is with amazement that I read the announcement of the 'Moral Compass project'; 'an examination of the highest standard to which our existence should be held'. It is not only the project itself that evokes my amazement so much as the assumptions that the prospective researchers within this project are voicing in the accompanying messaging. It should be noted that the project leader already immediately warns me (and anyone else who might want to respond): 'It will be wary of reflexes from believers and non-believers'. That sounds to me like all of humanity to which he - Science - is up against. In this reflex(ie) of a believer, I would still like to comment on some statements made in the linked article.

These are the questions that prompt the study: 'Is there such a thing as a highest standard to which our existence must conform? Can we know it, or do we have to determine the standard to which our lives must conform all by ourselves? Is the standard of right and wrong different in every age and culture?' I cannot deny that these invite reflexes, but I will leave these aside for now. I focus on what the researcher(s) themselves say, first and foremost:

'We are stuck in an Enlightenment thinking that the good must be universal, otherwise it is subjective and therefore suspect.'

Now is 'The Enlightenment' not unambiguous in meaning, so we have to figure out what might be meant here. In any case, what I think is generally recognized is that the Enlightenment is precisely the period in history that arose from a reaction to dogmatic authority beliefs. Here, then, one can hardly be referring to a universal concept of morality as many believers (h)recognize it, for then one is saying the opposite of what one seems to mean.

Is this perhaps referring to core political values associated with the Enlightenment, such as freedom of religion and speech, equality and democracy? These concepts should be generally valid according to many, indeed since the Enlightenment, but surely these are primarily political concepts while speaking in relation to 'believers and non-believers'. Surely within those concepts it is precisely individual and therefore subjective opinion, modern freedoms and a rational attitude that are at stake? Or is it about the danger of relativism, related to - and stemming from - the Enlightenment?

The latter seems most in line with logic to me. So now let me use this meaning in the quoted sentence: 'We are stuck in a thinking at risk of (too much) relativism that the good must be universally valid, otherwise it is subjective and therefore suspect.' But; then the whole sentence is wrong, it contradicts itself. Just the opposite is meant by what is said. At least; I get the impression that, on the contrary, an attempt is being made, in the line of postmodernism, to say that the researchers want to start from a relativization of the grand narratives, where subjective experience need not be shunned as an individual - not for all - norm. I think I hear this, though it is not said: the subjective as a height norm for our existence, for good and evil, is not suspect. In other words, "We want to investigate objectively. Should this be meant, it seems to me quite an open door for a scientific investigation that no one - believer or non-believer - will oppose. It is simply the first two questions from the occasion being investigated: is there a highest standard, can we know it, or does each determine for himself. No reflex except for the rather cumbersome introduction.

It then states:

The danger lies in the fact that a believer will quickly fall into the reflex that, if he thinks he knows what is good and what God's commandment is, he thinks that everyone must obey it. The unbeliever's reflex to this is equally rigid, but in mirror image: he will dismiss this view as a private opinion that he need not take seriously because it goes back to his faith. Testing it for reasonableness or good arguments is omitted.'

As far as I am concerned, the last one in particular is rather derogatory. It says something about how the researcher views himself and others. Science apparently has the reasonableness and good arguments (now where has the Enlightenment thought of earlier gone? Or are we just now not fixed in the Enlightenment?), the ordinary citizen unfortunately does not know them? On what is this based? Or is having an opinion a priori suspect, non-rational and based on no - or poor - arguments?

Following this:

Many people think - according to PThU - that people should agree on a universal standard for good and evil, but since that is clearly not the case, therefore there can be no universal or divine law.

The "obvious absence of a universal standard of right and wrong" is not at all clear to me! Probably the learnedness of this assumption is completely beyond me, but I also cannot escape the impression that no arguments have been named. Possibly, the first part of the sentence here refers to the fact that people deal with moral and ethical issues differently. However, this is not an argument for the lack of a universal standard, it is rather paradoxical: if there are many of us who think we should agree on a standard, we are thereby saying that there should be a measuring rod. That then everyone measures differently on this yardstick is not proof of its absence, but proof of measurement! Whether one measures accurately to 0.001mm or 100mm, it proves above all else that one is measuring. The last part of the sentence is obviously a premature conclusion which undermines the objectivity of the researchers, as they may have intended to indicate with the sentence at the beginning of this article. It sounds biased to say the least.

'Yet that lack of a universal standard for the good life also raises uncertainty: how do I know that what I am doing is good? When am I good enough? At the same time, there is concern about people who think they know a highest standard: those people seem intolerant by definition. On the one hand, people need a standard to which their lives should conform, but on the other hand, such a standard always seems to be at odds with their interests. (PThU)

'People who think they know a highest standard seem intolerant by definition,' is another one of those phrases from which a (crazy enough) paternalistic bias appears. And with "concern" added to that, it seems as if this is about radicalization. I think that means something like: conversion, imposing your will on others, sacrificing others for your cause. But is that so 1-to-1 with a highest standard for life? So take my highest standard as Jesus indicates to his followers, "Love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself. Can this then be directly connected to intolerance? Is Jesus himself perhaps the most intolerant person who ever walked the earth? And isn't radicalization, if I understood it correctly, rather linked to limited future prospects, cultural tensions, postmodernism, poverty and other social and psychological developments?

Again, the last sentence is paradoxical. It seems contradictory to have a standard and the freedom to act as you would like. It reminds me of what Chesterton writes: "When you draw a giraffe, you should draw it with a long neck. When, in overconfident creativity, you feel yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will find that in reality you are no longer free to draw a giraffe." It is true: the absence of a norm produces uncertainty and unfreedom, where a norm gives freedom. That would also certainly be interesting to see explored further, should it not be excluded a priori.

The Moral Compass Project aims to help strengthen a "moral compass," focusing on the good without trapping people.

Is this a typical case of hidden scientism at the Protestant Theological University? Science will set you free, where religion traps people? Science as a substitute for the big story, for the divine norm, for universal morality?

'Can we find a way to relate talk about the highest standard or God's commandments to a broader social debate about right and wrong? Even people who do not believe have an understanding of good, which in turn does not mean that everyone can agree on morality. Especially from the virtue tradition, we know that morality has no rigid criterion that you can apply to everything, but that it involves reason and wisdom to determine what is just in a situation.

This seems to me to be an exchange of concepts: the highest standard and ethics. A highest standard naturally gives rise to matching ethics. But ethics itself is not equivalent to a "highest standard. And here again there is a universal understanding of the good, right? Which indeed does not mean that everyone agrees on morality (measuring vs. measuring).

I understand that filleting texts is (too) easy and can miss the point. But it also reveals that beneath these words lies a world of philosophies and reflections. I would almost say "We are stuck in an Enlightenment thinking that the subjective must be generally valid, otherwise it is objective and therefore suspect. Which, by the way, is a much more unambiguous sentence. As Chesterton once wrote of Tennyson's words: "'There is faith in sincere doubt.' Indeed: these words contain a deep and frightening truth. Modern man does not believe in the resurrection because his very scrupulous materialism makes it impossible for him to believe in it."


Erwin de Ruiter

"One man tries to express himself in books, another in boots; both are likely to fail." - G.K. Chesterton

1 thought on “De hoogste moraal”

  1. Thank you! I am printing it out. Nice article to think about and read again. I myself think: let my well believe like a child and go to Jesus with my doubt. Because He meets me He is reality for me. I don't shoot a reflex when I think I know what is right. In my opinion, there is no such thing when you have a loving relationship with Someone. Of course I wish everyone in our chaos would embrace the Ten Words. How much more beautiful the world would be.

    When I read your piece I think: how complicated we have made it!

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