I enjoy my laptop and I appreciate the many functions it can perform; after all, it is a phone, a Blu-ray player, a typewriter and a recorder, all rolled into one. I’ve never used my computer as a floatation device, though. That would destroy my laptop in short order. And I couldn’t then write Apple for a refund, complaining about how defective their products are. My computer is not designed to save people drowning in a body of water; that is not what it was created for! The point I am making is simple. In order to determine if something is good or bad we first have to decide what it is for, or its fundamental purpose. In a similar manner, a life will be good or bad depending on what life is meant for.
Who Lived the Better Life?
Who lived the better life? Mother Teresa who served and loved countless people, or Pol Pot who skewered and killed countless people. I’m sure that both Pol Pot and Mother Teresa thought they were doing good, engaging in meaningful, worthwhile activity. Both sacrificed much to accomplish their goals. Both had fans and critics. Most of us, however, would argue that Mother Teresa lived a better life. Mother Teresa was mostly good and Pol Pot was mostly bad. Generally speaking, I think this view holds true regardless of a person’s religious beliefs for most of us can recognize the difference between good or bad, God or not.
However, the above moral pronouncement, reasonable as it seems, requires some sort of moral standard overarching both Mother Teresa and Pot, an assumed prescription regarding what life is for, which Mother Teresa is closer to emulating. But who decides what a good life requires?
Who Decides What Human Life is For?
Do we look to nature alone? If so, surely the life of Pol Pot is a more accurate representation of survival of the fittest. Or do we explain our preference towards a lifestyle of service and love via selection pressures working on ancestral populations, blindly promoting these ‘virtues’ because of their conduciveness towards human flourishing? If so, cruelty towards outsiders also contributes to the survival of a tribal group, giving us no non-arbitrary reason for embracing kindness over cruelty. At most, evolutionary pressures can justify ‘in-group’ morality that rises no higher than Pol Pot’s ethics.
So perhaps it is left to individual people to decide this question. If we define our own purpose we determine for ourselves whether or not our lives are good. We become the highest authority. This sounds attractive, of course, but it actually leaves us with no way to consistently claim that Mother Teresa, or Thomas Jefferson, lived objectively better lives than a mass murderer. Goodness is purely subjective and all three individuals likely fulfilled many of the purposes they set for themselves.
Don’t individual cultures determine what life is for? And all of these different cultures inevitably hold different views. This sounds far more reasonable and it is a phenomenological fact, but what if a culture agrees that the good life is given over to exterminating gypsies, the handicapped or homosexuals, to promoting slavery and the subjugation of women? And is the culture that decides to love the outcast, protect the rights of minorities and treat the most vulnerable with dignity and respect really not better, or more ethically progressive, in any meaningful sense? Are we willing to bite this relativistic bullet?
Maybe intellectually, but certainly not practically!
In the end it may be that, without God, we are robbed of any coherent, non-arbitrary reason to affirm that Mother Teresa’s life is objectively better than Pol Pots. If you find this morally absurd and untenable, I would invite you to embrace God as the ontological foundation of moral values and the only legitimate authority on what life is for. These moral values and duties are not arbitrary or external to God; rather, they flow out of God’s fundamentally good character and are revealed concretely in the person of Jesus Christ.
What Would Jesus Say?
In the Christian tradition, Jesus is considered the image of the invisible God, the one who defines the character of the Creator. In response to the question, “What is life for?” Jesus uttered these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30,31)
We are either progressing toward this standard or falling away from it and the true, objective goodness of our lives hangs in the balance. Thankfully, for all of us who fall short of God’s standards there is grace gifted us through the sacrificial, substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross. God’s law may strip us of our self-righteousness, but God’s love and grace re-clothe us in the righteousness of Christ. And with this gift of righteousness comes the empowering strength to grow up into what God has asked us to be, lovers of Him and lovers of others.
And that defines the objectively good, true and beautiful life.