From the July/August 2021 issue of Discern Magazine

A World Adrift With No Moral Compass

Morals and values are in flux today. Opinions about what is right and wrong divide nations and generations. Is there a solution to the moral confusion?

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What people consider right and wrong is changing at an astonishing clip. Through much of human history, many societal values seemed fairly rigid from decade to decade and generation to generation. For example, murder and theft and perjury were and are widely considered wrong.

The norms aren’t normal any more

Now, however, the disruptions made possible by technology, media, materialism and the decline of religion have accelerated social trends in many areas. The rapid pace of change has led to growing disagreement about what the norms of society should be.

Some long for the past, when it seemed there was agreement on what was right and wrong. But others ask, Should history be our guide to morality, when we consider the evils of previous ages? Each group and each generation sees the moral failings of the others.

With secularism replacing religion as the dominant force in the Western world, naturally each person relies on what he or she feels is right and wrong in the current situation.

But can a society survive long with a lack of moral cohesion? How long can we function when each group sees the need to counter and restrict the values of other groups and to push its own values through the media, education and even attempts at reeducation?

Does anyone have the moral authority to impose his or her values on others? Is there a real and unfailing moral compass? In order to answer these questions, let’s first consider a little background about where human morality has been and is going.

How long can we function when each group sees the need to counter and restrict the values of other groups and to push its own values through the media, education and even attempts at reeducation?Has there ever been a time when so many strongly held convictions swirled through the same society?

“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”

Though our situation is unprecedented in speed and scale, history does have some concerning parallels.

For example, in the epilogue to one of the saddest books in the Bible, tied to two of the most disturbing incidents in biblical history, we find this assessment:

“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

The book of Judges includes accounts of a man stealing 1,100 pieces of silver, a tribe setting up its own religion, the men of a town committing a gang rape that resulted in the death of a woman, her husband cutting up her body to send a grisly message to provoke an attack on the town where it happened, a nation fighting a devastating civil war and then condoning the kidnapping of girls to be wives of the defeated side.

Moral failings mixed with moral outrage to produce near anarchy.

When everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes, the result can be very wrong.

Trends in morality

Where are we at today? According to a Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans are very dissatisfied with the moral and ethical climate of the country, and another 28 percent are somewhat dissatisfied.

Agreeing things are bad doesn’t mean there is agreement on what is wrong!

The discord between socially conservative (often older) groups and socially liberal (often younger) groups keeps getting more contentious. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that conservatives or older people are holding fast to traditional biblical standards. Their views, too, are changing.

“The shift toward more liberal attitudes on a number of social and values issues has occurred across the age spectrum, not just among young people,” said Frank Newport, a Gallup senior scientist.

“Differences continue to persist between age groups, but what we have seen is a rising tide that has lifted all ships on this sea of moral behavior.”

To illustrate how the tides of moral values have shifted over time, let’s look at one example that has seen dramatic changes over the last 50 years.

Example: changing attitudes about premarital sex

Healthline reported:

Public acceptance of premarital sex is at an all-time high in the United States, according to a study from San Diego State University.

“Researchers came to that conclusion after combing data from the General Social Survey, a national survey of 33,000 American adults taken between 1972 and 2012.

“The researchers said they found substantial differences in attitudes toward sex among different generations.

“The biggest gap was between the World War II generation, born in the early 1900s, and their baby boomer children, born in the 1940s and 1950s. However, there was still a noticeable difference between millennials, born during the two decades before 2000, and their parents . . .

“The researchers said the national survey revealed overall acceptance of premarital sex has doubled in the past 40 years.

“In the 1970s, 29 percent of Americans said premarital sex between consenting adults was ‘not wrong at all.’ That percentage jumped to 42 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. It increased to 49 percent in the 2000s and then rose to 58 percent in 2012.”

Though the trends in acceptance continue to increase, trends in sexual activity don’t always follow the same curve. According to the Healthline article, “The number of sexual partners a person has over a lifetime peaked with the baby boomers. Researchers said the average was about 2 partners for the World War II generation, nearly 12 for boomers, and slightly more than 8 for millennials.”

Acceptance of many forms of sexuality has been following the trends for premarital sex. Gallup reported:

  • Acceptance of polygamy increased from 7 percent to 20 percent from 2003 to 2020.
  • Acceptance of gay or lesbian relations increased from 40 percent to 66 percent from 2001 to 2020.
  • Acceptance of pornography increased from 30 percent to 36 percent from 2011 to 2020.

This acceptance did not include adultery. For married people having an affair, 89 percent of Americans still felt it was morally wrong in 2020, the same percentage as in 2001.

How do moral values develop, and how do they change?

Our consciences may have some inborn aspects, but almost everyone agrees they are shaped by family and society.

Philosopher Patricia Churchland, author of Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition, traces conscience to the mother-child bond: “Attachment begets caring; caring begets conscience” (2019, p. 49). As she sees it, our conscience is then reinforced by society and involves “the internalization of community standards” (p. 14)

Throughout history, family norms and the norms of society have tended to be stable and persistent.

That doesn’t mean the norms were always right or consistent or clear. Throughout history and across societies and cultures, individuals have often faced moral challenges such as:

  • Holding competing values at the same time (the illogic of cognitive dissonance).
  • Facing situations with no right answers, just less wrong ones (moral dilemmas).
  • Desiring to justify an action considered wrong (moral compromise).

When there are so many disagreements about what is right and wrong, moral ambiguity spreads. People seem to default to a natural desire to do what feels good and seems right.All these challenges, though, become supercharged in a world with competing value systems and rapid cultural change. When there are so many disagreements about what is right and wrong, moral ambiguity spreads. People seem to default to a natural desire to do what feels good and seems right. Situation ethics and moral confusion lead to people adrift and segments of society in conflict.

If you don’t know where you’re going as an individual or a society, will you know when you get there? Can our society succeed without a shared moral compass?

The results of modern moral choices and our fractured societies

Have you seen any of these characteristics displayed on social media or other battlefields of the cultural war?

“For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Timothy 3:2-5).

The apostle Paul predicted these would be symptoms of the perilous last days. And today we see these characteristics across the political spectrum. Claiming the moral high ground by expressing outrage at others’ failures cannot mask or justify anyone’s own moral failings.

All the angry echo chambers lead to division, confusion and societies riven with violence and hatred. Representative governments too often work at cross-purposes, with episodes of whiplash.

Our world is adrift, buffeted by the competing currents and fluctuating winds of cultural wars. We are like the storm-tossed mariners the psalmist described:

“They mount up to the heavens, they go down again to the depths; their soul melts because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end” (Psalm 107:26-27).

Can we find the relief the psalmist recorded?

“Then they cry out to the LORD in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distresses. He calms the storm, so that its waves are still. Then they are glad because they are quiet; so He guides them to their desired haven” (verses 28-30).

In search of a moral compass

Our stormy world is in desperate need of a guide to a safe haven. But is there a moral authority that can define what is right and wrong in a way no one can refute? Is there a moral compass that always points to the way that brings the greatest benefits to all people in the end?

Though we naturally do what seems right in our own eyes, the Bible warns:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 16:25).

Some aspects of morality are not self-evident—people come to very different conclusions. The truth—the way that really works—has to be revealed to us.Some aspects of morality are not self-evident—people come to very different conclusions. The truth—the way that really works—has to be revealed to us.

The God who created us and truly knows what is best for us said through Moses:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).

What is good? The apostle Paul noted, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12).

Breaking God’s law is wrong and evil and leads to bad results and ultimately to eternal death.

God warns:

“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).

Benefits of God’s strong moral compass

On the other hand, God promises blessings for those who choose to accept His definition of right and wrong:

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh, and strength to your bones” (Proverbs 3:5-8).

God created us. He created morality. He provides the moral compass that leads to clarity, peace and the very best for everybody.

Only He can guide us on the right path that leads to real peace. Only He can lead us out of moral confusion and conflict.

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path . . .

“Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble” (Psalm 119:105; 165).

Take, for example, one of the premiere moral issues of all time: justice.

Today, the desire for justice inflames passions across the divides. God sees all sides and administers true justice—with mercy!

There is far more than enough fault to go around, but thankfully God’s justice is tempered by loving compassion and mercy.

God’s way produces true justice:

  • “He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
  • “But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

Learn more about His moral compass in the booklet God’s 10 Commandments: Still Relevant Today.

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse Blog and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter (including World Watch Weekly). He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who have the privilege of answering questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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