We have all been told we “ought to do” this and we “ought not to do” that. Why? Usually it is because those doing the telling know of the consequences or potential consequences for not performing the right action. But who determines what “ought or ought not” to be done, particularly concerning moral issues?
Our mothers and fathers and many other authority figures in our lives undoubtedly told us what ought and what ought not to be done. At some point, and usually very early in our lives, while we were still young children, we decided that we would make our own decisions about what ought and what ought not to be done. Perhaps we made this decision when an older sibling’s advice turned out to be wrong. Or perhaps it was when we thought we could do something we ought not to do and not get caught. Or perhaps it was when we simply did not want to do what we ought to do in spite of the potential consequences.
Who decides what ought to be done, or what ought not to be done? When it comes to moral issues, especially, who should make the determination? And who should determine the consequences for failure to follow an admonition or order?
In the 1700’s, philosopher David Hume wrote a book titled A Treatise of Human Nature, followed by Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in which he offers his thoughts, philosophy and arguments on the subject of morality. He and other moral philosophers argue principles and properties of what they think “ought to be” concerning morals and ethics.
But is the determination of what is right or wrong, or what ought and ought not to be done, simply a matter of human reasoning? Is it a matter of sentimentalism, based on some sense or feeling about what constitutes good and evil? Is it a matter of using the experimental method to see what the results will be and then deduce “maxims” about what is right or wrong? Is it a matter of individual assumptions and deciding for ourselves? Is it a matter of “group think” or societal agreement?
Most of us think we can decide for ourselves what is “good” and what is “not good.” That is the tendency of human nature. It started in the Garden of Eden, as did so many other things. Eve was deceived into deciding she should eat the forbidden fruit because it looked good, and the serpent told her there would be no consequence. Adam knew he should not, but ate it anyway, perhaps deceiving himself, thinking that since the consequences were not immediate they might never come. Mankind has pursued the path of deciding what he thinks are the oughts and ought nots, has and reaped the consequences throughout history (Genesis 3; 1 Timothy 2:13–14).
Moral philosophers, including Hume and those who came after him, are trapped by their own human reasoning. When we reject the existence of a divine authority, we can never correctly conclude what truly ought and ought not to be done.
There is an Almighty Creator God, who knows what is good and what is evil. He knows what produces blessings and happiness and what leads to curses and sorrows. The word of God is full of His instructions concerning of the things we ought to do, which lead to life, and the things we ought not to do, which lead to death. Over and over again God warns us of the consequences for disobedience. We ourselves, individually or as a group, should not decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil. As the apostles said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).