Who Are You To Impose Your Morality on Others?
By Paul Copan
Moral relativism dominates the guild of cultural anthropologists. Cultural enemy No. 1 is the Christian missionary. Why? He imposes his values on tribal cultures and ethnic groups. Should we not leave these peoples alone, unspoiled by the Western cultural baggage that will ruin their way of life?
This who-are-you-to-say-another-culture’s-wrong philosophy goes back centuries — perhaps most notably to philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803). He despised the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment, and emphasized the individuality of persons and their cultures.2 According to von Herder humans do not have a fixed nature; their environment and family experiences influence them, and we can predict their actions and responses based on those influences.
Von Herder was big on the idea that cultures are so different from one another that we should not be picking out what is wrong with them. After all, he argued, no one “became man by himself alone.” In fact, we should not be chronological snobs (as C.S. Lewis put it), acting as though we are so much better than our ancestors. It is simply unfair to judge our forebears since our descendants will similarly judge us. As the English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.” Like Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” not to interfere with another planet’s social development, none of us should judge other societies by our own culture since we are all products of historical accident and social forces.
In this essay,I look at two related themes. The first has to do with the idea of imposing morality or forcing one’s morality down another’s throat. The other addresses the more specific theme of morality and the law. I will tackle the slogan, You cannot legislate morality…
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RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: True for You, But Not for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith by Paul Copan
Apologetics authority Paul Copan tackles popular sayings that often leave Christians speechless, such as “All religions lead to God,” “Who are you to judge others?” or “Jesus was just another great religious leader.” He provides readers with thoughtful explanations of anti-Christian slogans and brief answers to help them continue their conversations with non-Christians. In addition, Copan answers questions about the unevangelized. Study questions for group or individual use are included.
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