I am convinced that one of the easiest things to do as a Community Apologist is to use pop culture to demonstrate that everyone, everywhere (with the exception of the odd sociopath) has a moral intuition. And once people agree that this intuition exists, the conversation can then turn to why it exists and where it comes from.
One of the commenters on my last post asked if I could provide some specific techniques for using pop culture to demonstrate moral intuition. I have not yet gotten to the point where I can tick off a numbered list of steps, but because of his promptings I am developing a kind of mini-curriculum that will premiere here at some point.
In the meantime, the best way to show community apologists how to use pop culture to demonstrate universal moral intuition is to model how I do it. In other words, here is me trying to convince my readers that most television shows assume the existence of a shared moral standard even when the producers, directors, actors, and the fictional characters they play aren’t aware of it.
The only television genres I watch on a regular basis are murder mysteries and science fiction. Among the murder mysteries (or “procedural dramas,” as they’re more properly called) that I watch is “Bones.” At the end of Season Six, the writer’s decided to kill off my favorite squintern, Nigel. I knew it was coming (because I’m addicted to spoilers), but it was sad nonetheless. In her grief, Dr. Temperance Brennan, an atheist forensic anthropologist, articulates the feeling that many people have after a senseless death. “If there was a God,” she cries, “then he would have let Nigel stay here with us.”
What I found fascinating about this particular statement was that although Brennan is an atheist, she still could not escape her own instinctive belief that God—if He existed—would be good. And good, as defined by Dr. Brennan, is allowing people to live rather than die, preventing the injustice of a good person being murdered by a bad one, and protecting people from the experience of pain.
Brennan has said repeatedly that she believes only in what science can prove and that morality is only a means of preserving the social order, However, in a moment of grief she reveals a presupposition so basic that she does not even recognize it. What she shares with the rest of the world is an almost universal instinct regarding not only what is right and wrong, but what is good, what is fair, and what qualities a society should value and promote.
She is saying that there is something called good which can be contrasted with what is called bad. She is saying that if a supreme being existed he would, by default, by definition, and by necessity, be good.
Note that what I have done here is take something that a character on the show has said or done and analyzed the underlying, intuitive assumptions about morality contained within it. Even Dr. Brennan knows in her heart that evil should not triumph over good. Even she has moral intuition.
Once it’s been established that the fictional characters in a movie, book, or TV show have an intuitive morality, it’s not hard to move into the real world and find examples of this shared morality in recent history.
One frequently cited example of this shared morality is the world’s condemnation of the Nazi atrocities and the subsequent war crimes trial in Nuremberg, Germany. In his article “Intuition and Moral Theology,” Bernard Hoose argues that Western civilization’s universal condemnation of these acts demonstrate not only that there is a moral intuition in mankind, but that this intuition is assumed to be authoritative.
Regardless of their status as soldiers and their defense that they were “just obeying orders,” says Hoose, the judge at Nuremberg believed that the Nazi soldiers had no excuse. They should have known that what they were doing was wrong.
In Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis suggests that there is universal understanding not only of right and wrong, but also of those qualities that humanity finds collectively admirable. Throughout history, Lewis argues, mankind has admired qualities such as bravery, unselfishness, kindness, justice, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. Lewis calls this intuitive sense of how people should behave “moral law” and differentiates it from any evolutionary instinct of self-preservation by arguing that “feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling like you ought to help whether you want to or not.”
In The Reason for God, Tim Keller has offered a modern version of this argument:
People who laugh at the claim that there is a transcendent moral order do not think that racial genocide is just impractical or self-defeating, but that it is wrong. The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.
Let’s look at another example of how an apologist can recognize this universal morality when they find it. (And yes, I know I’ve used this example before…but it’s just that good!) In a 2005 episode of the BBC’s Doctor Who, The Doctor is on a space station that broadcasts nothing but game shows in which the penalty for losing is death. In this world, the “weakest link” gets incinerated in front of millions of people.
In a key scene, The Doctor turns to the manager of the station and says “Your staff executes hundreds of contestants every day.”
“That’s not fair,” the manager replies. “We’re just doing our job.”
“With that response,” growls The Doctor, “you just lost the right to even talk to me.”
Remember, this scene takes place in a universe in which God does not exist. Yet in this simple exchange, The Doctor reveals that not only does he believe that there are moral absolutes, but that everyone should intuitively know them and be held responsible for violating them.
In just a few lines of dialogue, the writers of this episode evoke those powerful images of a Nazi standing in a courtroom in Nuremberg in 1945 claiming that he killed hundreds of men, women, and children in the German death camps because he was just following orders. The response of most people, both then and now, is that anyone committing such atrocities should have known better. There is no excuse for ignoring one’s moral intuition.
Pop culture is stuffed to the gills with these kinds of examples. In fact, procedural dramas could not exist without the shared understanding that murder, torture, sexual abuse, and lying are wrong. And who are the heroes of these stories? People who do the right thing regardless of the cost.
What the Community Apologist needs to learn is to say “aha” when they hear dialogue that reveals this moral intuition.
In Step 2, we’ll explore ways of getting from universal moral intuition to the existence of God.