I just checked the news. Ten years ago a California man kidnapped his girlfriend’s daughter and has held her against her will since that time. He mentally, physically and sexually abused her, forced her to marry him and she bore him a three-year-old daughter under duress. This is wrong. Two landscapers in New Jersey duct-taped the mouth and eyes of one of their clients, a 41 year-old mother of two, and then buried her alive. So wrong! A rich, important man was recorded making distressingly racist remarks. He was wrong to hold such views, whether or not he expressed them. Finally, a woman’s dog went missing, but it turns out someone stole it. She found it for sale the next day in an ad on Craigslist. This is all sad – and simply wrong.
These are not preferences. It’s not only that we don’t like stealing, murder and various kinds of abuse. It is wrong to do these things. This is not merely cultural, decided by society. The genocides of Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were wrong, even though many in those societies had actually learned to view them as necessary. Getting a certain critical mass of people to favor genocide will not make it morally right.
Black widows can eat their mates and presumably feel no twinge of conscience. Wolves and hyenas have been known to eat their young. It may be repulsive to us, but that’s just what they do.
Jeffrey Dahmer, sexual predator, serial killer and prominent Milwaukee cannibal, might only have been guilty of violating a number of elaborate herd instincts, products of natural selection, kept for their survival value. In that case, his behavior may have even been the result of a positive genetic mutation. He did, after all, outlive every one of his victims.
But wait. We know that just isn’t true. What he did was bad. Period.
Of course, we most clearly feel the presence of a moral issue when we are the victims of an offense. Nonetheless, we can see one even if the case has zero impact on us. In the political realm we argue the fine points; we don’t question the basic assumption.
The existence of God and the possibility that we are made in his image does a lot to explain this. If he is, and is good and we are wired to reflect his character, then human guilt (or the lack of it) is not merely a feeling, but the result of actual moral knowledge. Such knowledge may need refining, but it is not our invention.