Right Behavior. Does It Exist?

By Michael C. Sherrard

How do you know if your idea of right behavior is truer than mine? I ask, of course, because nearly every day I’m confronted, as are you I’m sure, by someone who insists that they are right and I wrong about how to live. Arguing is native; it’s the air we breath. The article you read before this one was likely someone arguing that their view of right behavior is better than another’s and that you should fall in line. Everyone has uttered the words “that’s not fair, or “right” or “good”, be it about something like eating the last piece of cake or whether or not to bake a cake with a message on it you find objectionable. So if we agree, then, that it is obvious that people believe there is behavior that is better than other behavior, how can we have any confidence that our behavior is the good one?

Real Place Morality

Well, there is only one way to have confidence at all, and it is this – right behavior must actually exist. It must be a place we can arrive at, a destination of sorts. C.S. Lewis explained this well in Mere Christianity, perhaps my favorite book of all time. He wrote, “The reason why your idea about New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks.” As it is true of ideas about New York, it is also true of ideas about behavior. There must be a real right way to live and a real wrong way to live for our ideas about behavior to be truer or less true than another’s. For it would be nonsense to argue about something that doesn’t actually exist.

Indeed, there must be something official, something authoritative, some standard of good behavior that really exists that one’s behavior more closely aligns with than another’s for one’s behavior to be right and the other wrong. This is quite simple isn’t it. Such an obvious fact of reality. Fighting about beliefs assumes their are right and wrong beliefs. But of course, you know the next question this brings. What is this standard with which we judge beliefs about good and bad behavior and from where did this standard come?

I suppose, of course, we could abandon all together the notion that right and wrong exist and give up arguing. But to even get there, we would need to argue if that is the right thing to do. It seems we are stuck. If we are going to continue to fight about whose beliefs of right behavior are best, we also must have a talk about whose standard for judging behavior is best.

I don’t think I’ll take this space to explore this thought any further and try to settle what’s the best standard for judging behavior. Rather, let me just end by insisting that we recognize the obvious fact that our arguing about behavior presupposes that there exists some standard of good and bad behavior. It is probably a healthy exercise for all people to reflect on their standard. How did you come by it? Who told you it was the standard? And most importantly, why is your standard sufficient to be the authoritative source of moral judgement? Regardless of what side of an issue you find yourself in the future, remember that you share common ground with your opponent. You are each trying to conform yourself and others to some standard. Which brings one last question to my mind. Why on Earth should anyone obey your standard? Why is it worth my allegiance? Perhaps a time out is in order so that all parties can reflect on these kinds of questions before resuming the incessant declaration’s of “I’m right!”


Michael C. Sherrard is a pastor, the director of Ratio Christi College Prep, and the author of Relational Apologetics. Booking info and such can be found at michaelcsherrard.com.

Original Blog Source: http://bit.ly/2xAE9Vf



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21 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “Well, there is only one way to have confidence at all, and it is this – right behavior must actually exist”
    Not necessarily. For one person to say to the other ‘This isn’t right because it’s not fair’, all that’s required is that the unfairness be obvious enough – the other one pushed ahead in a queue, for example – and that the two agree that fairness is a value one should live by. No universal objective standard is required, just one that the two people involved agree upon. Obviously if the other person sees no problem in pushing into a queue then the first person cannot persuade him to wait his turn and must instead either stew at the injustice or use force – either alone or with the help of others.
    And this is what we see happening in real life – people either debate the right action to take based on their shared values, or those of the society they live in, or they fight or one group simply forces the others to submit. No universal standard is required to explain this.

  2. jcb says:

    Andy is right, as usual. My hope is that some theists will listen and learn from Andy’s comment. (Is that too much to ask for?)
    Right behavior does exist, but it requires no universal standard, and typically involves a relative standard, and always (apparently) has nothing to do with god, as far as we know. (An example: It is right for you to see Star Wars, IF you like Sci Fi, and rightness for you means to do what you like).

    • Andy Ryan says:

      Right. Two guys discuss how they’re going to travel to see Rogue One in the cinema. Do Christians think this assumes that a universal standard of films exists, and that Rogue One has to be an ‘objectively good film’? No, it just means the two guys are in agreement that it’s a film they want to see.
      “My hope is that some theists will listen and learn from Andy’s comment”
      Here are the possible responses: 1) Ignore; 2) Preach me some Bible verses; 3) Question why I’m posting here. Or the fourth option, actually attempting to address my point but kind of missing it, asking WHY the two people agree on a concept of fairness, or saying that it’s meaningless if it’s not an objective concept.

      • MFT says:

        There some contradictions in your claim!!! Let me ask you a question: “what if some else does not like the film? Does that make the film a good film? Of course not. Because that’s an assertion or the opinion that the two guys have about the film. And every one has to respect your opinions..But the fact that I have an opinion about something doesn’t make the claim right…
        Now, if I said that every working computer has a CPU….That is a truth for everybody; this time the claim is based on the object..THAT MAKES IT OBJECTIVE!!!!

        • Andy Ryan says:

          “And every one has to respect your opinions”
          Why? I don’t much have much respect for the opinion that Transformers is a good film series.
          “There some contradictions in your claim!!!”
          Can you tell me what they are?
          Do you have any questions or challenges to the actual points I made? I can’t see anything in your reply that disagrees with what I said.

  3. Just saying says:

    Life’s not fair. Whats fair to one may not be fair to another. Some people quibble over the most unimportant things, because they think it’s not fair. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a standard out there.

  4. MFT says:

    Andy Ryan! You said that as long as the two people involved agreed upon, no objective standard is required, right? So, you’re saying that if those two people agree in killing someone for fun, does that make “killing for fun” right?

    • Andy Ryan says:

      No, that’s not what I said. Again, feel free to tell me what the contradictions are that you believe exist in my ‘claim’. Read the specific argument the blogger makes and my specific response to that argument. Tell me which part of my response you disagree with and we can move forward from there.

  5. ANTHONY says:

    If I say that a Jaguar is better than a Ford, does that mean there is some standard of “car-ness” that is better realised in the Jag? No, it does not. So much for that argument, then.

    • Clinton says:

      The argument isn’t about cars.
      So if one decided its good to kill people just for fun and another thinks that’s bad, who’s right?

          • Andy Ryan says:

            It’s a pretty vague word with many meanings. And I note you’ve not answered. One decided it’s enjoyable to kill people for fun? He may be right. But good can mean beneficial, or helpful, or socially accepted, or several other meanings. Even if you just mean ‘approved of by a God’ there are few people who’ll agree on what God approves of. Evangelicals right now are telling us God approved of Trump, so who knows. But again, you avoided the question.

          • jcb says:

            I seem to find nothing but theists who would rather show exasperation rather than simply define their terms. Don’t get emotional, Clinton, just define what “good” means for you. Andy is right (as usual): “good” means many things, for different people, concerning different things (like a good movie, a good person, a good car, even a good god!)

          • Clinton says:

            Obviously I didn’t mean good car, good food, good movie.
            The context should make the definition of good obvious.
            Cars and movies are not the same thing as morality.

            Im wondering what could be good about killing people for fun.

            I heard a story a while back. There was a speech or something like that. The speaker asked, is rape wrong?
            A lady said, ” only in a culture that opposes it”

            Well I got a question. Would you like to live in a culture that permits rape?
            Because you wouldn’t want to be subjected to that. Well why should the women that are there be subjected to it?
            What could possibly be good about rape just because it’s acceptable in that society?
            Is lying good behavior?
            Is stealing good behavior?
            Is adultery good behavior?
            Is murder good behavior?
            You will know the answer to that when it is done to you.
            Arguing about fairness doesn’t work because what’s fair to one may not be fair to another.
            Such as a person going to jail for offending someone.
            One says it’s not fair to offend me. The other says it’s not fair to be punished for exercising my freedom of speech.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “You will know the answer to that when it is done to you”
            Yup. And no God is required to come to that conclusion.

          • Clinton says:

            Well Andy. You can argue that. But if these things are wrong, how do you come to that conclusion?
            How do you decide whether to behave in that manner?
            Where did we get these ideas?
            Under moral relativity, someone could say these things are good, and do whatever they want. And not a single person could say, no that’s wrong. Don’t do that.
            We can say that it evolved into us, but history shows that these types of laws, or ideas have been around a long, long time.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Well Andy. You can argue that”
            It reads like you just did. You gave a good argument for why it’s bad that made no reference at all to a God. Would you want to live in a society that allowed rape? No. It’s pretty simple.
            “We can say that it evolved into us, but history shows that these types of laws, or ideas have been around a long, long time”
            Indeed – their longevity is a point FOR them being evolved, not a point against. Other social mammals have their own societal taboos. You can see it in chimps and bonobo monkeys, for example.

  6. Andy Ryan says:

    “You will know the answer to that when it is done to you”
    Have you noticed that this reasoning works whether there’s a God or not? You asked: “Is lying good behaviour? Is stealing good behaviour? Is adultery good behaviour?”. You say that a person will know that it isn’t good behaviour when they’re on the receiving end of it. Why is a God required of this argument to work? People can see how harmful all these behaviours are when they are on the receiving end, whether a God exists or not. God is not needed for your argument to work.


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