I’m reading St. Augustine’s Confessions for the first time and I came across the most reasonable explanation for standards of morality that I’ve ever read:
“True inward righteousness takes as its criterion not custom but the most righteous law of almighty God, by which the morality of countries and times was formed as appropriate to those countries and times, while God’s law itself has remained unchanged everywhere and always, not one thing in one place and something different elsewhere. by this norm Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and all those of whom God spoke approvingly were indeed righteous; they are accounted guilty only by persons of limited experience who judge by some human day of reckoning and measure the conduct of the human race at large by the standard that befits their own…. Foolish are people who grow indignant on hearing that some practice was allowed to righteous people in earlier ages which is forbidden to the righteous in our own day, and that God laid down one rule for the former and a different one for the latter, as the difference between the two periods of time demands; whereas in fact both sets of people have been subject to the same norm of righteousness… Does this mean that justice is fickle and changeable? No, but the epochs over which she rules do not all unfold in the same way, precisely because times change. Human beings live on earth for a brief span only, and they lack the discernment to bring the conditions of earlier ages, of which they have no experience, into the same frame of reference with those they know well.”
To paraphrase (and probably poorly), God’s standards of righteousness never change, but the application of them, the expected rules of morality for a society, do change because they must to fit circumstances and times. This is eminently reasonable to me. For example, war is generally bad, and in modern times it may be possible to try to avoid it at all costs. In ancient times, however, that’s not a reasonable standard, as going to war was expected as a matter of course; it’s impossible to avoid war when everyone around you is warring. Attempting to apply modern standards to ancient times would be suicide, though the general principle that war is bad may be the same.
Obviously, this is standard Christian teaching, but reading it struck me simply because I’m so steeped in a secular culture that applies the exact opposite standards. A common criticism of the God in the Bible is that his rules seem to change so much; He seems even a different God in the Old and New Testaments. Stranger to me though is that secular applies the opposite standards to its own judgment of morality. When pressed, I don’t think most secular humanists would acknowledge that there is an absolute moral truth – that would veer too close to faith and religion. At the same time, they increasingly post-judge historical figures by modern standards of morality, on issues like racism and sexism. Like with people wanting to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from all Princeton programs and buildings because of his racism. It’s not necessarily wrong. But the principle behind it makes no sense to me. If there is no absolute truth, how can you judge anyone in the past? How can you even be sure our current moral standards will remain the right ones?