Should Moral Standards Be Objective, or Just Based on Personal Feelings?


In “The Shame Culture,The New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that the social pressures governing life on American college campuses are overwhelming, and even greater when moral standards are always shifting. He writes,

“When a moral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post in support of it on Facebook within minutes. If they do not post, they will be noticed and condemned.

” It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along.”

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Brooks believes that college students can find a greater measure of stability by basing their identity on values that are “more permanent.” He suggests,

“If we’re going to avoid a constant state of anxiety, people’s identities have to be based on standards of justice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancy of the crowd. In an era of omnipresent social media, it’s probably doubly important to discover and name your own personal True North, vision of an ultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity and exclusion.”

However, on today’s college campus, imbued with moral relativism (MR), this has become difficult. For one thing, MR is attractive for the very reason that it is dangerous. It tells the students that they are in charge – the captains of their own ships. They can decide what is right for themselves. If it feels right to them, no one can objectively tell them that it is wrong. Consequently, the college campus culture celebrates any and all forms of sexual expression.

Brooks understandably ennobles that idea of finding “standards of justice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancy of the crowd.” However, he wrongly associates these “more permanent” values with finding “your own personal True North.”

Worse still, he’s sending out contradictory signals – double messages.

While on the one hand, he seems to recommend basing our values on what is objective and unchanging. On the other, he suggests that we find our own personal subjective values. But, if our values are subjective, they will be as flimsy and impermanent as the university values that he derides. And– they will be no less vulnerable to social pressure than the values they already possess (or lack).

Instead, in order to stand against the social pressures, we need to know that our values are objective, coming from above, and therefore are unchanging. It is only when we know this that we can stand against the tsunami of peer pressure and public opinion.

If we are going to resist persecution, it is not enough to know that we are standing upon our own “True North.”

This Easter season, Christians recently celebrated their savior, Jesus, who suffered the worst imaginable death. His disciples were brought before the governing body – the Sanhedrin – who had earlier turned over Jesus to the Romans and demanded His death. Yet, these disciples (mostly uneducated men) surprised the Sanhedrin with their courage in response to being commanded to no longer speak of Jesus.

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:29-32; ESV)

The Apostles were able to withstand incredible socio-political threats and cultural pressures because they were convicted of what they knew to be true and permanent: standing upon God’s own “True North,” not on their own values or fleeting sense of dignity.

Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has taught theology, Old Testament, and Apologetics at the New York School of the Bible for 24 years and has written several books, including Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God’s Way. He is a contributing writer for the Christian Research Journal. Follow him:, or join his Facebook groups, Apologetics for Today, Seekers with Questions about Christianity, Christians with Vexing Issues Seeking Truth and Straight Talk.

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