Religion & Liberty Online

New Barna Study on Americans’ Confused Morality is … Confused

The Barna Group recently released a fascinating new study on morality in America. The press release is titled, “The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code.” It summarizes the study:

New research from Barna reveals growing concern about the moral condition of the nation, even as many American adults admit they are uncertain about how to determine right from wrong.

Sounds like a problem. And, indeed, the data does give reason to be concerned. But the framing of at least one question presumes a false dichotomy.

In particular, the question “Moral Truth: Absolute or Relative?” gives as possible answers only “Absolute,” “Relative,” or “Never thought about it.”

I presume that “both” wasn’t an option because the questioners believed that the two options were mutually exclusive. However, this is simply not the case.

According to classical Christian metaphysics, every particular being (hypostasis) has a nature or substance (ousia) common to all members of that species. Theologically, the Church fathers would say that while all human persons are equally created according to the image of God, each person’s conformity to the divine likeness varies.

Thus, there are some aspects of morality that are absolute — Ten Commandments stuff, like do not murder or do not steal. This is common to all human beings simply due to our common humanity. It is the foundation of universal rights and equality (and responsibility, for that matter).

However, each person lives her life relative to her own context. I illustrate this problem in my editorial to the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

Imagine two criminals, Bonnie and Clyde. The two are suspected of a serious offense, but only apprehended for a more minor one. The authorities separate them and give them each the same offer. Confess to the greater crime and rat out your partner (who will get 20 years in prison) and go free with immunity. If not, serve 1 year for the lesser crime.

But there’s a catch: If both confess, then both will serve 5 years for the greater crime. This is the inspiration for the “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory. The self-interested thing to do is confess, because ratting the other person out gets the best individual outcome for the rat. But if both partners take the same strategy, they will actually do worse than if they cooperate with each other and stay silent (5 years vs. 1 year). This is often used to highlight the benefits of altruistic behavior as opposed to selfishness.

But that is precisely where the metaphor breaks down, morally speaking. I write,

What is often overlooked is that the prisoners in the dilemma actually are criminals. This is understandable; it is only a thought experiment meant to illustrate choices and their material consequences, after all. However, the real Bonnie and Clyde, for example, were notorious robbers and gangsters, and Clyde at least murdered several people.

I continue,

Confessing one’s crime, despite being in the actor’s material self-interest, also happens to be the right thing to do. The two can coexist. A self-interested action may be motivated by shame, grief, or penitence just as easily as selfish opportunism.

Furthermore, “Bonnie and Clyde remind us that people can cooperate for evil just as well as for good.”

Here the correct moral action is entirely conditioned by the context. It is not for that utterly disconnected from moral absolutes, but it is in that sense relative. “One person’s opportunism may be another’s first step of salvation,” I write.

And thus, moral truth, rightly understood, is both relative and absolute. Failing to give that option in their survey may have skewed Barna’s results, calling into question the conclusions they base on those results as well. A person may answer “absolute” and fail to see the importance of the relative. A person may answer “relative” without denying the importance of the absolute. Unfortunately, without an option to answer “both,” the results are as morally confused as the average American.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.