What Criminal Trials Teach Us About Objective Moral Truth

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What Criminal Trials Teach Us About Objective Moral TruthI’ve been involved in numerous criminal trials over the years, most involving cold-case murderers. In many of these cases, the outcome was influenced (in large part) by activity outside the presence of the jury. There are legal rules both sides must follow when conducting the prosecution and defense. Sometimes these rules allow one side to take advantage of the other in subtle, yet powerful ways. If a rule allows one attorney to benefit strategically (while staying within the applicable legal restrictions) most lawyers will capitalize on this opportunity to gain an advantage (so long as they are within their legal right to do so). Here, as in every part of our society, there is an important distinction between legality and morality; between what is legally permissible and what is morally virtuous. This distinction highlights God’s role in the existence of objective moral truth, as it exposes the inability of culture to provide an objective, transcendent moral law.

I think there are good reasons to believe objective moral truth exists; it is a self-evident reality of our world if we stop to think about it. It’s never morally acceptable, for example, to torture babies for the fun of it. But how do we account for such moral truths? Are they embedded in our DNA or a product of evolution? Are they the result of societal development or cultural progress? Both of these explanations seem deficient. If moral truth is created by our culture, what is legally permissible in a society should be synonymous with what is morally permissible. If moral truths are the result of proclamations made by the government in a representative republic, our law reflects (at least in theory) the majority opinion and moral progress of our culture. In other words, our laws define moral truth by legal consensus. But most of us would agree laws such as these are (and have been) inadequate in determining moral truth.

Adultery, for example, is legally permissible in our country yet morally reprehensible. In addition, most of us have learned how to manipulate certain laws or societal rules to our advantage; we are more than willing to find a loophole in the tax law, for example, if it will help us avoid paying our share of taxes. Our legal system may adequately describe what our laws are, but they are inadequate in prescribing what our moral truths ought to be. There’s distinction between legal truths (held by individual governments or societies) and moral truths (transcending all humanity). That’s why we identify certain behaviors in criminal trials as legally permissible, even if they are ethically questionable. That’s why we recognize the difference between the legal status of adultery and the moral status of adultery.

Most cultures describe themselves as morally virtuous even when engaged in morally reprehensible behavior. Hitler, for example, would most certainly have described himself (and the society he led) as morally upright. If history is any guide, humans cannot be trusted to define objective moral truth; we typically favor our own desires over others. Organizations like the United Nations exist (in part) to monitor the behavior of nations who believe their decisions about legal truths are sufficient to form realities about moral truth. When a nation readily embraces a morally unacceptable policy or behavior, the United Nations does what it can to correct the situation. But to what moral authority are they appealing? Is it simply to the majority? Does majority consensus make something morally acceptable? We should hope not, because there are times when the world’s largest nations are the target of our concerns about inappropriate behavior. If “might makes right,” we have good reason to be concerned.

The laws of our individual countries may reflect moral truth, but they don’t define moral truth. Humans are decent describers, but are historically inept prescribers. Our local, regional or national laws are designed to enforce transcendent moral truths recognized across the spectrum of human experience. Our societal laws may describe what is legally true, but they don’t prescribe what is transcendentally virtuous. If this were the case, adultery would be a virtue rather than a vice.

In the numerous trials I’ve been involved with over the years, I’ve heard attorneys complain about the tactics used by the other side, even when the opposition was well within their legal right to do what they did. These trials expose the difference between legality and morality. Cultures and governments can dictate and describe what is legal related to each society, but transcendent moral truths must be grounded in what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once described the “law above the law”. Transcendent moral truths require a transcendent moral truth Giver. God alone transcends every culture and people group. As a result, God is the most reasonable explanation for the transcendent source of objective moral truth.

Cultures and governments can dictate and describe what is legal related to each society, but transcendent moral truths must be grounded in the “law above the law”. Click To Tweet

For more information about the scientific and philosophical evidence pointing to a Divine Creator, please read God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe. This book employs a simple crime scene strategy to investigate eight pieces of evidence in the universe to determine the most reasonable explanation. The book is accompanied by an eight-session God’s Crime Scene DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case ChristianityGod’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.

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  1. What Criminal Trials Teach Us About Objective Moral Truth
    https://coldcasechristianity.com/writings/what-criminal-trials-teach-us-about-objective-moral-truth/
    This article talks about objective moral truths.
    The article begins by pointing out that there is a distinction between what is legal and what is moral. There is such a distinction, although the author seems to fail to define each, and give examples of each. If he did, the kind of thing that would prove his claim is this:
    1. Things that are legal (like walking down the street) will not (prima facie) get you arrested, tried in a court, thrown in jail, etc. Things that are illegal will (prima facie) mean that the police/justice system will try to jail/arrest/ticket you (or something like that).
    2. Things that are moral, i.e., kind, are things like helping others. Things that are immoral, i.e., unkind, are things like hurting others.
    So the author is right: these 2 things (what is legal and what is moral) are not always identical.
    The author is also right: many people act in legal ways that are immoral. The author wrongly concludes from this that “This distinction highlights God’s role in the existence of objective moral truth, as it exposes the inability of culture to provide an objective, transcendent moral law.” Nothing here actually proves God, or highlight’s an existing God’s role in any of the above truths about morality or legality.
    The trick here is in the latter part of the claim: an “inability…to provide an objective, transcendent moral law”. By (theist’s usual) definition, “transcendent” means “beyond this world.” Thus, clearly on this definition, culture (something in this world) can’t provide (?) a law that is transcendent. But nothing shows that anything outside of our world provides any moral laws (an odd phrase). Part of the problem is in the notion of a “moral law”. There are “legal laws”: social policies societies often “make”, meaning actions that people do (like criminal activity/robbery/taking another’s possessions/what they bought) that result in other actions other people do (the police trying to arrest that person). But a “moral law” doesn’t have the same structure. The closest analogy is something like this: in a family setting, the parents have said, “if you aren’t kind, then we will send you to your room.” It IS structurally similar in that it involves cause and effect between 2 or more parties. The “law” refers to what will happen to X if X does Y (usually something mean/unkind).
    All of that makes sense until one tries to add (out of nowhere, supported by nothing) that God is needed for any of that, or that God is entailed by any of that. Those latter claims are false. Morality (moral truths like rape exists and is usually unkind, or moral laws like “if you are unkind, certain people will try to stop you/punish you) doesn’t need nor entail God.

    JWW says, “there are good reasons to believe objective moral truth exists; it is a self-evident reality.” What is a self-evident reality? He gives this example “torturing babies for the fun of it…is never morally acceptable”. Of course, JWW doesn’t define “acceptable”. Does he mean that it is “never accepted”? or does he mean that it is “impossible (for anyone to ever do/accept”? Or does he mean that it impossible for it to ever be for the greater good?
    What is true is that, generally, it is unkind to torture persons. It is also unkind to torture babies. It is also unkind to torture babies for fun.
    JWW asks, “how do we account for such moral truths”? By defining our terms clearly, and then using as much evidence and science as we can to determine the best answer at any given moment. JWW tries to pull the trick of saying that “these explanations seem deficient. If moral truth is created by our culture, what is legally permissible in a society should be synonymous with what is morally permissible.” JWW seems to fail to notice that we are talking about what determines moral truth, not what creates it. We determine if “rape is unkind” not by “creating it” but by defining our terms (like rape and unkind) and then seeing (with evidence and science) if the first thing/action (like rape) involves the other property (and it usually does: those who rape are usually not caring much about the great harm they do to the other person: they act in an unkind fashion).
    JWW creates another straw person, by saying, “ If moral truths are the result of proclamations made by the government in a representative republic, our law reflects (at least in theory) the majority opinion and moral progress of our culture. In other words, our laws define moral truth by legal consensus. But most of us would agree laws such as these are (and have been) inadequate in determining moral truth.” Basically, JWW is saying that if a society says that rape is kind, it wouldn’t make it so. And he’s right! What he is wrong about is thinking any of that pertains to or entails God.
    The author is right: adultery is legally permissible in America, but unkind (“morally reprehensible”) in many/most situations. (Most marriages aren’t open marriages. Most marriages involve each person promising not to have sex with others. The breaking of this promise is, for many, quite hurtful and unkind).
    The author says that while legal truths are “held by societies”, moral truths “transcend all humanity”. That’s at least partially false. What is legal depends on the society and the law. What is kind also depends on the person and their desires and the act done to them. If a person loves cheese, it is kind to buy them some cheese. If a person hates cheese (as I do), (and you know it), it is unkind to buy them some cheese.
    The author is right: Hitler acted “legally” in many ways, but many of his actions were “immoral”, unkind, hurtful, etc. The author is right: Hitler (as far as I know) would have described himself as “morally upright”, kind, beneficial, acting for the greater good, etc. And Hitler would have been wrong/incorrect in describing himself that way: he was not kind (overall).
    JWW then says, “humans cannot be trusted to define objective moral truth.” The mistake here is that (so far) only humans can “define” words like “objective moral truth”. There is nothing else we know of that can do that.
    JWW cites the United Nations, saying, when a nation acts immorally, the UN (often) tries to correct/stop that. He then says, “to what moral authority are they appealing”? JWW fails to show that they are appealing to any moral authority, nor that they need to. The UN is simply/basically saying, “those in our group prefer to be kind, and we’ve decided to declare that we will take various actions in response to various other (mean) actions. There is no godly authority here (or elsewhere), because there are no (known) gods. You don’t need a “majority consensus” to make it “morally kind”. The author tricks the reader by suggesting that there has to be an external force (god) that makes it okay (whatever that means) for the UN to do what it does, but that’s false.
    Basically, instead of proving that God is needed here, the author criticizes various views like “might makes right” (punching people into submission makes it kind to do), and then hopes you don’t notice when he suddenly declares that God exists (since other claims are false).
    The author is right: many of our legal laws are motivated by moral truths, and our desires. Most of us desire to discourage/prevent murder, which is unkind, and thus most societies have created laws that penalize it. The author is right: there are some laws are not virtuous/kind. We have the legal right to insult others (“you dummy!”) even if it is unkind. None of this pertains to or proves God.
    The author basically says:
    1. There are moral truths that are not identical to legal truths (true)
    (it is legal to yell at others, but it isn’t moral/kind).
    2. Moral truths require or entail God (false/not known to be true)
    3. God exists and transcends (?) all people. (false, not known to be true)
    4. Thus God exists and is the source (?) of moral truth. (false/not known to be true)
    So, while moral truths exist (it is unkind to torture babies, for fun, or not, generally), nothing about any of these prove God. (Rather, some moral truths like “rape is not for the greater good” disprove a perfect in all ways being (“God”)).

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