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23 February 2012

Moral Ambiguity

This was a paper I wrote some time ago, and I thought I would post it; I apologize for the spacing.

Recently, an article about a very candid interview of the investor Bernard Madoff was published by New York magazine. This article was intended to give a portrait Mr. Madoff from his own perspective after spending roughly the last two years of a 150 year sentence in federal prison. Mr. Madoff was sentenced thus for a $65 billion Ponzi scheme that had repercussions over five continents and affected thousands of investors (Fishman, 2011). However, according to his own words, he feels “misunderstood,” and that he is “…a good person,” (Ibid). On the opening page of the aforementioned article, Mr. Fishman writes:
  “And so, sitting with his therapist, in prison khakis he irons himself, he seeks assurance. ‘Everybody        on the outside kept claiming I was a sociopath,’ Madoff told her one day. ‘I asked her [the therapist], “Am I a sociopath?”’ He waited expectantly, his eyelids squeezing open and shut, that famous tic. ‘She said, “You’re absolutely not a sociopath. You have morals. You have remorse.” Madoff paused as he related this. His voice settled. He said to me, “I am a good person.”” (Ibid)

These statements by Mr. Madoff and his therapist are charged with the slipshod, relativist morality of contemporary thought and will be the main focus of this discourse heretofore.

How does one define goodness, morality, or ethics? These terms come with a surfeit of philosophical and pseudo-intellectual baggage, but is there a way of knowing, beyond a doubt what these expressions truly mean? Contemporarily many have embraced the philosophy of moral relativism wholesale; that is, one’s ethical system and morality is dictated and judged by them, and is ultimately true for them and is not affected by any transcendent reality or standard because, according to this philosophy, there is no such thing. Logic, however, would disagree; for Plato, a master logician and philosopher, taught that the material or human concepts which would be called “good, right, just, et al.,” are merely imperfect examples of a perfect exemplar who is the very source of such qualities (Nash, 1999). To wit, one cannot conceive of something as good without having a canon, a measure, by which to compare that which is called “good.” For example, if I call a man “good” I must therefore have something by which to measure that standard of “goodness” because the definition of a “good” meal and a “good” man are, to be sure, not one and the same. How then would one who, by their own worldview, is the final judge upon any issue of “goodness” define such a thing? Is one who has never seen a horse able to define that animal? Is “horse-ness” relative to the observer? Absolutely not, a horse is a tangible thing, an animal that is defined by a clearly perceived reality.

Furthermore, Mr. Madoff said that he was a “good man,” but Mr. Madoff has made his assertion on biased and false information, as will be shown below. If he is “good,” then by whose standard is he so: the psychiatrist, the prison warden or his fellow inmates? Clearly, none of these are the perfect canon by which Mr. Madoff can compare himself, yet in the quote above, Mr. Madoff clearly believes that the counterfeit absolution he received from the prison psychiatrist based upon the grounds of his alleged “morality” and “remorse,” makes him a “good” man. Mr. Madoff has shown some of the qualities of contrition, but this does not make him a good man, and the absurdity of such an assertion of “goodness” therefore begs the question, what then is goodness and how does one define it?

As stated above, there must be a canon of a virtue to define what that virtue truly is and then measure a subject based upon that canon. In nature, there is not one specific thing that can be pointed to that perfectly embodies a virtue. There are men who do “good” (in some sense) but all men have their faults; animals surely do not embody any virtue for they have not the capacity to understand or act in a moral fashion. However, there is a way of seeing the perfect by viewing the imperfect.

From time immemorial, man has known at the very core of his being that there is something greater than himself. One need only stand upon the majestic peaks of a mountain or view the splendor of a night sky to know that man in all his glory is an insignificant feature in a vast, nearly immeasurable cosmos. Therefore man has, via the institution of religion, worshiped a transcendent being who is often modeled after the created order that they perceive (cf. animism, the Greek and Roman Pantheon, et al.). In Paul’s letter to the Roman church, he clearly speaks of this very reality by stating:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them [mankind], because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20, parentheses added)

“Claiming to be wise, they [mankind] became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:22-23, parentheses added)

And finally:
“The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3; emphasis added)

These verses of sacred Scripture drive right to the heart of the issue that Mr. Madoff and a host of others patently deny and suppress; namely, that man is by his very nature evil and corrupt and wants nothing whatsoever to do with God or His Law. Man, rather than acknowledge the revealed God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would rather fashion his own god to serve his own desires and therefore “suppresses the truth.”

Therefore, man by his very nature is not good, and by virtue of the fact that Mr. Madoff is indeed a man, neither is he. It is this transcendent reality that is fundamental to any reasonable understanding of man’s true nature. Why then does man display what would be considered good and virtuous behavior? Because man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and conceives of all things by that very image. All virtues, all knowledge (Colossians 2:3) issue from the fount of wisdom that is God Himself, and man, even in his sin and corrupt nature, reflects the image of his Creator, albeit in a drastically distorted manner. Therefore, the perfect Exemplar for goodness is God Himself and man would know nothing of what goodness looked like without God’s revelation to him. God, then, is the perfect embodiment of Goodness (Psalm 119:68), Truth (John 17:17, 18:37), and Love (1 John 4:7, 8). This clearly shows that when Mr. Madoff made the statement “I am a good person,” he immensely exaggerates, and indeed deceives, himself of his true nature. To be “good” Mr. Madoff must know from whence true, perfect Goodness derives, namely God, and as is the case for most who are not delusional narcissists or schizophrenics, few mere men would dare say that they are God.

Mr. Madoff accepted the empty platitudes of a psychiatrist as confirmation of his “goodness” but has no true understanding of what goodness actually is. This is the essence of understanding ethics and morality: there must be a canon. If one is to derive their morality or ethical system based upon their own perceptions, fabrications, and inconsistent understanding then one has no valid ethical system. Just as “horse-ness” cannot be defined without knowing what constitutes a horse, so ethics and morality cannot be defined without knowing their ultimate origins. This is the fundamental flaw in the modern mind that is so apparent in Mr. Madoff’s statement about himself. Simply having what could be perceived as an ethical system or remorse for some perceived wrong does not, in point of fact, show that a person understands what is required to be good because that person must measure themselves against the perfect Good.

To conclude, when one honestly examines themselves before God and His revealed Law, that person cannot help but to know that they are not good, but God being rich in mercy has provided a means of justification (i.e. being declared not guilty) by faith in the person and work of His only Son, Jesus Christ, His shed blood on the cross for sin, and His resurrection from the dead. This is not religion or the fabrication of a deaf and dumb idol but recorded history of a God who provides a means of redemption from the total inadequacies of our “goodness,” for:

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him (Christ Jesus), having forgiven us all our trespasses by
canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14; parentheses added)

To wit, one cannot construct their ethical or moral standards based on their own perception because that perception is flawed and corrupt, and neither for that matter can Mr. Madoff. Instead of looking for pardon or confirmation from a prison psychiatrist or the institution of man, Mr. Madoff and indeed all men should be looking to the Son of God who has done all that God requires to become well and truly good through faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins.  


  1. God, then, is the perfect embodiment of Goodness (Psalm 119:68), Truth (John 17:17, 18:37), and Love (1 John 4:7, 8).

    Hmmm. Genesis 38:7 And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
    Genesis 7:4 For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.
    "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."
    Richard Dawkins - "The God Delusion"

  2. Key phrase in Genesis 38:7 "wicked in the sight of the LORD."

    As for Genesis 7 go back to Genesis 6:5

    You are still referring to God's judgment as "evil" acts when they are a punishment for the very evil that you are claiming. Those people you are referring to, and everyone that ever lived for that matter (Jesus excluded), were guilty and deserving of death for their sin. They received the judgment of God, and your refusal to take verses in the context in which they were written proves nothing.

    Dawkins' comments have nothing whatever to do with the truth; he is a militant anti-theist and his arguments are lacking everything but vitriolic hatred.

    1. Would you harm your grandchild for the sins of your child? Would you see that as an example of "goodness"? That is the type of being the God of the Bible is sir.

    2. Joel,
      Murder is never love. Torture is never love. Maybe it is to you, but I will let your remarks speak for themselves. How could the acts of the people who were killed in Noah's alleged "flood" have have committed atrocities greater than the annihilation of all living things? Does infanticide not rise to the level of immoral behavior? Please refute Prof. Dawkins charges if you can. His words were chosen well and are based wholly on the truth. It is obvious you do not understand the the origins of the bible and it's multiple, anonymous authors. Your are quite unable to understand the contradictions presented in the bible. Have you attended a Theological Seminary or some sort of Bible College? Do you understand the "historical critical" method of biblical studies. You seem to be indoctrinated into not only a military style of understanding (very limited) but also a dogmatic and devotional method of bible study. The violent wallpaper on your blog is very telling to your world view and 14th century attitude. Your skill set seems perfectly suited to pre-Enlightenment discussions.

    3. Yes, sir/madame (could you please inform me of which to use that I might address you formally), I am quite familiar with the historical grammatical method of Scriptural interpretation, as that is the only way to interpret the text of Scripture without falling into gross error, and as I have commented is the method which all sound scholars use to interpret any historical text. The historical critical method, as you call it (I think you may mean textual critical or higher critical), has been shown historically to be unfaithful to the text itself -and indeed any historical text Scripture or no- and therefore false.

      What truth does Dawkins present? The only "truth" to Dawkins is his own, and it is based solely upon his opinion and a twisted, uncomprehending view of the ENTIRE counsel of God contained in the Scriptures. I have challenged your quotes of Dawkins and have yet to receive a reply to anything I have presented to you; yet you say to me "refute them if you can."

      If you would like, sir/madame, I would gladly go through each contradiction with you and concisely refute each and every one (please try and keep it to one a day) as has been done hundreds if not thousands of times by men far superior in intellect than myself.

      You, again, are refusing to see the Bible as it was intended to be seen; that is, it is one complete narrative from beginning to end containing multiple types of written communication to present a SINGLE text. The books of the Bible convey a tapestry of the entire intended revelation of God. I have refuted every charge that you have brought, sir/madame, yet you refuse to answer my challenges and continue to bring your own.

      My education is not at issue here; therefore, save your personal attacks for someone that will hear them and stick to the issues at hand, if you please.

      Frankly, your judgment of God's "morality" is irrelevant. You cannot judge that which you have no comprehension; that is, by your denial of His very existence and revelation you deny the means by which you could conceive of God (outside of simply knowing of the existence of "a god" through the existence of the natural world) and His attributes. Furthermore, how do you judge or make assertions about something that you patently deny exists? The truth of the matter is, you know He exists, and you know He demands obedience, yet you refuse to acknowledge what your deepest convictions tell you every day and "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." All of this because you cannot bear the thought of accountability to someone higher than yourself. This is not mere speculation, sir/madame, but Scriptural truth (Romans 1:18ff).

      To conclude, really? You're going to judge my psyche based on an image in the background of my website?

    4. I understand your reply was meant for another but I would like to jump in if I may. Just because I do not believe in a God does not mean I can not judge the description of the God. The Bible contains passages which are supposed to be what we know of this God. If we do not judge that God how can we know if it is a good God? God's morality is in question; it must be for us to determine if it is indeed good, loving, merciful, etc.

    5. Sir, as far as I'm concerned, tippy may comment to your heart's content. Your candor and respect are a breath of fresh air and I officially extend to you the interweb equivalent of a frosty mug o beer. Truly, I mean that.

      You are right, sir, you can speculate and discuss but your knowledge will only go so far as your finite intellect will allow outside of God's revelation. Also, since human morality is but a marred reflection of God's prefect holiness, we cannot truly judge His actions because of our 1) finite minds compared to His infinite and omniscient mind and 2) His perfect morality compared to our imperfect and indeed evil sense of morality. That was redundant, but think of it as a Hebraic repetition; also, I'm on my phone typing this.

    6. Tippy, according to my phone, means you by the way.

    7. You can call me Ken.

      If we can not judge God by his actions how do we know God is good? Just because I am imperfect does not mean I can’t judge. My humanity demands that I judge. I judge everyone around me. If I see a person who drinks to excess often I will choose to avoid them. My judging does not compel me to become the executor of punishment but it does compel me to avoid some people who I view undesirable as a companion. If your neighbor acted rudely and was inconsiderate of others but was still lawful would you judge him to be of upright character? Would you stand idly by if your son started emulating that neighbor? Should God’s character be immune to judgment? If we can’t judge God’s actions can we say it is good that he provided a way for us to be saved? If you say it is good you have already judged him by his actions. Or are you going to say that it’s not good or bad that Jesus died for your sins?

  3. I disagree with your methodology. Have you ever eaten the perfect tasting piece of chicken? Of course not; but I would bet you have eaten some good chicken in your lifetime. You've probably even eaten some bad chicken as well. We can not judge based on perfection; we judge good and bad based upon a medium. Madoff was not as bad as Hitler so compared to Hitler, Madoff is a good person.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, sir; I really appreciate your respectful comments.

    Goodness, in the sense of morality, must have a perfect exemplar; that is, a "good" taste is not really good at all but a trick of language. We use "goodness" to describe food, but good food is not good morality. That kind of comparison is horribly flawed.

    Also, Jesus went to the cross willingly knowing what would occur; so again, its not the same. Comparisons of the divine against the human are insufficient at best; that's why we have things such as special revelation, because our conception is flawed. Therefore, God revealed Himself that we might know all that we need for faith and life and to know Him as much as we are able.

  5. Is it really fair to compare anything with the perfect example of that particular thing be it morality or chicken? Are you married? I am. If you compared your wife to the perfect wife what would you say on your anniversary? I have a wonderful loving wife. I would venture to say she's a great wife. I have to base that comparison to other wives I've seen and heard about. If I compared her to the perfect wife since my wife is not perfect she would be an awful wife. Imagine comparing a wife that never cooks a meal, cheats on you and spits on you at every opportunity, to a wife that never cooks, cheats, spits and then kills you. The first wife would seem pretty good wouldn't she? But it's not really a fair comparison is it? Nor is it fair to judge any man's morality on your perception of the perfect morality.

    1. The trouble is, sir, is that there is still a definition of what morality is; my perception be damned. Subjectivity does not extend to all things at all times; hence, why we are having this discussion. There is, always has been, and always will be a defined, perfect Law, and any deviation from that Law (morality if you will) is immoral. If you define morality based on perception you have at best caprice and at worst tyranny; that is, morality defined by the one with the power to define it. If you subjugate morality to perception, culture, etc. you are playing a very dangerous game, and one that you inevitably lose.

    2. If you base your morality on whatever you believe your supernatural creator wishes it is a dangerous road as well, especially when it comes from the bible. Your law is no less rigid than based on perception. The bible has some very rigid laws and some that are up to interpretation. And some laws which no one really cares about any longer. In hindsight we can see that slavery is morally wrong. In hindsight we can see child sacrifice is morally wrong. Some things seen in the bible as moral and upright would never be tolerated in our society today i.e. witch burnings, genocide, the stoning of those who work on the Sabbath. Thousands of years ago Abraham believed his God wanted him to sacrifice his son. He was going to do it. I see that as morally repugnant regardless of the wishes of His God. There are very few things that I can imagine which could cause me to plunge a dagger into the heart of my son and none of it could be a wish from a God. You can’t say that. If you truly believe that your God wants you to kill your child you must do so for it would be morally corrupt in that context not to do so regardless of the morality which would be screaming from your heart to stop. You claimed that the morality based on perception is defined by the one with the power to define it. Isn’t it wonderful that in the U.S. that is impossible? We have a legislature and a senate and a president that we all vote into or out of office so that our society can choose what is wrong and right for ourselves. In a society as large as ours we do not always agree with the majority vote; but that’s the price we pay to live as we do. If we base our morality on what we perceive that God wants it can be claimed so by others. How many times do we hear a story of a murder where the perpetrator says that God wanted them to do it? I’m sure some of those are people wanting an excuse in the hopes for leniency but some must actually believe that their God wanted them to act in that manner. Are they all insane? If one actually did do as God wished how would we know and how should we treat them?


Be polite and respectful; all are welcome!