What Makes Something Wrong?

moralThe study of ethics and morality can be an interesting topic.  Whether we recognize it or not, much of our lives is guided by our sense of what is wrong or right.  Generally speaking, we avoid what is wrong or try to explain it away when we didn’t.  This sense of right and wrong guides simple decisions from whether we’ll roll through a stop sign or come to a complete stop, to choosing if we’ll earn our living at the expense of others. In spite of the importance of this sense, it seems that we rarely pause to think about what is the source of our morality. In other words, why is something right or wrong?

What I’ve heard a lot lately suggests that people seem to believe in moral relativism.  They rarely call it that, but the way they define morals makes it fall under that category.  It means they believe our set of wrongs and rights is relative and comes from society.  They would say these “rules” help us maintain order.  They would insist that there is no objective right or wrong.  Think of the way we drive in the United States.  Here, we drive on the right side of the road. In the UK they drive on the left.  Therefore, it would be “wrong” to drive on the left side here and “wrong” to drive on the right side there.  This right and wrong is completely relative to the region.

In the same way many people think of morality. They would suggest that if a society determines a set of behaviors to be wrong, then they are wrong for that society at that time. However, morality can be changed.  Like the highway system, if it is deemed that society is benefited by changing the rules, then those rules can be changed because those things are not objectively wrong.

The major (and obvious) flaw to this methodology is that nothing is ever objectively wrong.   In other words, stealing, rape, and murder are not truly wrong, they are mere rules that society is following for convenience sake.  They are like driving on the left side of the road in a right-sided land.  The problem is that people everywhere recognize that stealing is objectively wrong. When people steal from us we feel violated on a deeper level than if they just were traveling down the wrong lane of traffic. In fact, if we see someone driving on the wrong side, we don’t tend to feel personally violated. Why? Because we intuitively recognize that that action is not objectively wrong as is stealing.  If moral relativism were true and someone molested you as a child, then you could never say the molester was wrong.  The most you could say was that the molester violated an ordinance, like driving on the wrong side of the road.  You could also add that you and the molester disagreed over what he had done – but you could never say he was wrong.  No one agrees with that.  No one.


The reality of the matter is that we as a people everywhere recognize that some things are objectively wrong, regardless of the time or circumstance.  We agree that Hitler was wrong for exterminating Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, and mentally-infirmed people.  We believe this was wrong regardless of how many people in Germany thought it was right. We would believe it would be wrong to gas innocent children even if the whole world thought it was right!  We believe this because deep within us is a moral barometer that recognizes when objectively wrong actions have been committed. The testimony of mankind agrees that we believe some actions are objectively wrong.

This leads us to an interesting juncture.  If some things are objectively wrong, then where did those rules come from?  From where did this moral law derive?

Physical laws, like gravity, govern our world.  When we release a ball from our hand we know the ball will be caused by gravity to fall.  We also know what will be caused by rounding a curve while driving too fast.  When those physical laws are broken then predictable things will occur.

The moral law is different. It doesn’t tell us what is the case, it tells us what ought to be the case.  This is remarkable. Gravity doesn’t tell us that the ball ought to fall when we drop it.  Centrifugal force doesn’t recommend that we lose control if we round a corner too fast. Rather, those kinds of laws predict what will occur.  Yet, the moral law tells us what we ought to do and what we ought not to do.  It is not a law in the same sense of gravity. Rather, it comes to us like a command that can or cannot be obeyed.  These commands, or duties, suggest that there is something or someone outside of us dictating the moral law.  This reality also assures us that morality does not spring from our conveniences, but is from without and is objective.  This is consistent with our own internal testimony.

Obviously, this conclusion has consequences.  A command to do something suggests something different than a law dictating what must happen.  A command to do something suggests a mind is behind the command, not a force.  We can never say that gravity is concerned about things falling.  This is different. This is personal. Gravity isn’t personal.

So, what makes things wrong or right?  I believe the only logical conclusion is to assume that a being – or God -exists that has created a moral law or command to follow.  This God must be good Himself for the command to emanate from Him.  And, we know this because we ourselves have an internal witness to the reality of a moral law that we ought to follow.  It would be a shame to silence that witness.  In fact, it would be wrong.



Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.



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