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How Philosophy Drives Medical Ethics Part 3

When the foundations are being destroyed

What can the righteous do? (Psalm 11:3)

It’s called the Wexner Center for the Arts. This beautiful building, located on Ohio State University campus was featured in Time magazine and described as America’s first postmodern building. What does postmodern building mean? Well, that’s the point – or lack of it.

The architect decided, since our lives have no purpose or meaning, why should our buildings? And so, he designed the building without any particular purpose in mind. It has stairs that lead nowhere, shapes of rooms that are unusable.

As I read about this building, I had one question. Did the architect follow the same logic with the foundation? I’m confident he didn’t. Because at some point, the truth matters.

As he stood before Pilate, Jesus explained, “it is for this reason I came to earth. That people would know the truth.”

Pilate replied, “What is truth?”, and walked away.

In the first two parts of this series, I used Peter Kreeft’s book, “A Refutation of Moral Relativism”, to illustrate the role of philosophy in determining how truth is established in our minds. In this final blog, I promised to show its relevance to the social changes we encounter and ethical decisions we face.

What is truth?

Absolute truth holds that something is always right and true, whether people agree or disagree with it, and whether it happens to be part of their experience.

Relative truth says life is validated not by a set of principles or outside objective data but based on personal experience and preference. Truth is different for different people. All views hold equal value.

Until the last three quarter of a century, all recorded human history has been characterized by a clear understanding of moral absolutes. Even those who committed criminal acts did so despite knowing better.

Regardless of one’s political preference, race, or socioeconomic status, society generally had consensus on most core values and moral absolutes: the value of human life, loyalty, respect, fidelity, commitment to family and marriage, kindness, generosity, and love.

Try to imagine a society where honesty, justice, courage, self-control, faith, hope, and charity are evil. And lying, cheating, stealing and cowardice, betrayal, addiction despair, and hate are all good. You can’t. A compelling natural law testifies otherwise.

Ethical behavior has its foundation here. We spend most of our time on the periphery of the tree, perching on fragile branches, arguing about the fruit, but oblivious to its origin.

The real divisive issues in society are not abortion, sexuality, homosexuality, transgender politics, or the environment. These are merely the lightning rods of conflict and controversy.

The real issue today is “What is true?” Because we are learning what happens when truth is separated from an objective referent.

Isa: Foundational issues always turn out to be metaphysical. Ethics always rests on metaphysics. What ought to be rests on what is.

(Note: Kreeft’s book was written over 20 years prior to transgender controversary. This remains a true statement.)

Libby: Epistemology (the science of thought) should be more fundamental than metaphysics.

Isa: No, metaphysics must be fundamental, because what you think depends on what you are.

Libby: Why is this foundational for society?

Isa: Society has always needed morality and morality has always needed religion. Destroy religion and you destroy morality. Destroy morality and you destroy society.

Libby: You’re identifying morality and religion, then? An atheist can’t be good?

Isa: I’m not saying that at all. An honest atheist who pursues truth and goodness will find it. And a theist who doesn’t, won’t.

Libby: How does that work?

Isa: A religious believer who knows the true and the good in his head but doesn’t love it in his heart won’t submit to it. He will make it relative to his desires. And He will lose even the truth and goodness he already has by making it relative to himself.

Libby: And how are you defining religion?

Isa: The essence of all true religion is submission of the heart to truth, to God - and to what God is: truth and moral goodness. The relativistic churchgoer has had the truth given to him. He just doesn’t like it.

I heard a Christian Pastor interviewed on television after a series of corporate scandals were exposed where many business leaders had abandoned ethical behavior. The pastor was asked to explain how this could happen. What was happening to our society?

The one being interviewed responded with a question.

“I will be happy to answer your question if you will first answer this. Why do we teach our young business leaders, at our finest Universities, that there is no absolute truth - that all morality is relative - and then act surprised when they graduate and act exactly according to what they were taught?”

The interviewer had no response.

It’s important we get this right. Because if the first casualty is truth, the second casualty is justice. Truth is a critical component of justice.

Libby: How does this impact justice?

Isa: Plato spoke of 4 cardinal virtues. Virtues are a kind of trinity: one thing with three aspects. The three parts are wisdom, courage, and self- control. Together they make up justice.

Libby: You think these four virtues have died?

Isa: In the minds of society’s mind molders, yes. Especially self-control. Plato said it wasn’t just one of the cardinal virtues, but a necessary ingredient in all virtues. If you lose it, social life comes apart.

Libby: Why?

Isa: Because if reason doesn’t rule passion, passion will rule reason. And then reason becomes rationalization - a slave to your passions.

Isa’s point is shown in this quote from Mussolini in his Diuturna:

“Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition. If relativism signifies contempt for objective, immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascistic attitudes and activity. If all ideologies are of equal value, if all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable. “

The price his society paid under this philosophy was addressed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University in the 1970’s when he gave this warning:

“Between good and evil, there is an irreconcilable contradiction. One cannot build one’s national life without regard for this distinction. We, the oppressed people of Russia watch with anguish, the tragic enfeeblement of Europe.

We offer you the experience of our suffering. We would like you to accept it without having to pay the monstrous price of death and slavery that we have paid.”

Izzy suggests those supporting relative morality are more tolerant. In the name of inclusion and compassion, it can be tempting to embrace popular culture’s view on controversial topics.

Tension in current society is expressed in both vitriolic speech and violence. We find ourselves living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Even truth can be used like a club. Should we not strive to be inclusive?

But truth, by definition, is exclusive. It excludes all that is not true. Even as truth without grace is unloving, grace without truth is not loving. We can treat people with dignity and respect without compromising what is true.

Isa: Well, what would you say is the obvious consequence of moral relativism.

Libby: Tolerance. Something your absolutists have never really understood.

Isa: Oh, I think absolutists understand that better than you imagine. Chesterton said, “Tolerance is the one value you have left when you’ve lost all your principles.”

Libby: Why can’t morality be gentle instead of harsh. Free ideals instead of impositions? Wise suggestions.

Isa: Because moral obligations aren’t suggestions. Moral relativists are missionaries without a religion. It’s like cloning a Jehovah’s Witness and a Unitarian. You get someone who goes door to door with nothing to say.

Ravi Zacharias was a Christian philosopher who was born and raised in India. He was speaking at a prominent university. When he finished, the professor of philosophy, an American gentleman, confronted him to question why Zacharias was not Hindu like himself.

Zacharias replied he didn’t want to speak about why he wasn’t a follower of a particular religion, noting there were thousands of belief systems. Rather, he would speak the next night on why he was a Christian and inherent in that talk would be the reasons the professor sought.

Within his talk the following night, Zacharias pointed out systemically contradictory affirmations within pantheistic world views, violating the law of non-contradiction, a basic rule of logic that states two statements in direct contradiction to each other cannot both be true.

Afterward, the professor approach him very angry.

“Obviously, you don’t understand eastern logic”, he told Zacharias. “You know the law of non-contradiction where two mutually exclusive affirmations cannot both be true at the same time and the same sense, this is a Western way of thinking.”

Zacharias disagreed. The professor insisted and continued undeterred:

“The western way is either this or that. The eastern way is both this and that.”

Again, Zacharias disagreed. The professor asserted confidently this was so and continued:

“The problem is you are studying an eastern religion as a westerner and so you are bothered by the contradictions. You should have used both/and logic and the contradictions wouldn’t have bothered you.”

The professor went on for a long time, accusatory and loud, as a crowd gathered. He criticized Zacharias harshly, stating he had done “the greatest disservice to this world view he had ever heard any man do.”

When he finally took a breath, Zacharias asked him “are you finished?”.


Zacharias then said, “I have one question. Are you telling me that when I’m studying the pantheistic system I either use both/and logic, the dialectical, or nothing else? Is that right?”

There was a long silence. The professor of philosophy had no response. Finally, a professor of psychology, listening in to the conversation, observed, “the either/or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

Zacharias replied, “Yes sir, it does. And I have some news for you. Even in India, we look both ways before we cross the street. It’s either the bus or me, not both of us.”

These are some of the riders in the bus I see coming to America.

In traditional Christianity, ethnicity, sexuality, and life itself is sacred. The price of admission is admitting that you’re not God. The trans movement takes the opposite view. Trans ideology claims dominion over nature itself. It defines truth by feelings. We can change the identity we are born with, even as every cell in our body testifies against us.

The injury to children, caught up in this fad, nurtured by adults using them to their ideological preferences, is making irreversible decisions at an age when self-concept and inclinations flux week to week. There is no child or adolescent who can conceive what their life will be like at age 30.

A recent Wall Street Journal poll released last month showed concerning trends in values of America. Only 30% said having children was very important to them, compared to 59% in 1998. 38% said patriotism was important, compared to 70% in 1998. 27% felt community involvement was important, compared to 62% just in 2019. Importance of religion dropped from 62% to 39%. The only value that rose significantly was money.

We often bemoan the need for our country to live up to our values. In truth, we always do.

Chesterton said, “The man of the true religious tradition understands two things: liberty and obedience. The first means knowing what you really want. The second means knowing what you really trust.”

A society that believes in nothing worth surviving for beyond mere survival will not survive.

Tim Powell MD

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