Three Enlightenment Ideas That Have Affected Moral Behavior in Our Times

These ideals and common theories come from post-Christian philosophy, but we still fall into the trap of thinking like them…

Social Contract Theory

This theory has come to imply in our day that all civil authority belongs to “The People,” certainly not some “passe” God. In reality, this philosophy is most often experienced as nothing other than mob rule. Morality today, is determined by polls, rather than by truth. It is determined on the strength of feelings most often, rather than on “inconvenient” facts. In our social-media-driven society today, it is those who occupy positions of political or economic power or celebrity, or those who are the loudest, that consider themselves the “majority”. It is these, then, that believe that they have the “power” to determine what will be considered right and just, based on the current fashions of the day, as opposed to eternal truths.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this in his 19th century classic, “Democracy in America”. He admired the American democracy for its capacity to liberate the energies and the creativity of the common man. But he also could see its dark side and warned against what he called, “the tyranny of the masses.” By this he meant rule by polls. The morality of this age is shaped by egoistic, materialistic and utilitarian ideas. These ideas limit the concept of the moral good to the concept of “the greatest number,” or to those who are members of a particular “group”. They ignore, or despise those among them who do not belong, or who do not “go along”.

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On the other hand, morality, as it is taught by our Christian faith, is based on the words and deeds of Jesus, the Christ. The Christian “Social Contract” is rooted in the commandments of God, those of the Old Testament, and of the New Testament. It is based on the ideas that we ought to love one another as Jesus loved us, that we ought to be merciful, forgiving, compassionate, self-disciplined, concerned for the poor, and so on. It teaches that, in this life, there are times when we must sacrifice our own desires, for the good of others. Notice how all of those concepts are “other-oriented,” the opposite of selfish. Christian morality is not despised because it is wrong, it is despised because it is difficult and it directly challenges the selfishness of our society. It holds a mirror up to the selfish and shows them how shallow they are, indeed, how unjust.

Is it any wonder why those who wish not to have any constraints on their passions want us to go away? But Christian compassion demands patient endurance and loving compassion in the face of anger and rejection. Society needs a moral core to achieve the long desired justice it craves. We Christians are called to be moral in an immoral, and ever-increasingly, amoral world. We are asked to accompany Jesus, to participate with our very lives in the salvation of the world.