Do others have the right to define what's ethical for me?
Rev. GEOFFREY KERSLAKE is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa.
This week’s question is based on the erroneous belief that morality or ethics is something relative: in other words, what you regard as right might not be right for me.
The Catholic Church rejects the idea of relative morality because we believe that there are divinely revealed morally absolute laws that are true always and everywhere. Jesus summarized divine law when he shared the greatest commandment “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39).
We can see that society today has adopted many of God-given absolutes: for example, we believe that it is wrong to lie, to steal, and to commit murder and we see that laws based on these rules from the 10 Commandments are universally applicable.
If morality depends only on each individual’s personal preferences we have no common ground to have a discussion about universal human rights because we cannot appeal to a standard “beyond” or “above” our own individual preferences. An ethical system that is grounded on moral absolutes, however, provides the structure for an agreement about fundamental values.
In following the God-given revelations of the Ten Commandments we have a common, true and eternally applicable basis on which to build society. But if society’s ethics were to be based solely on personal preference where everyone decides for herself or himself what is right or wrong, not only do we ignore God’s wisdom and authority, we would have no common basis for a shared morality and laws would become merely opinions.
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