In Arthur Holmes’ Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions, he summarizes three bases of obligation. These three are a) Obligation as self-imposed, b) Obligation as imposed by people, or c) Obligation imposed by God. Let me summarize these three positions.
Obligation Is Self-Imposed
The greatest advocate of this position was the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Since Sartre denied the existence of God, this idea of self-imposed obligation was a natural consequence. ((In the last 30 years, atheists have attempted to find some sort of universal obligation in order to deal with the inescapable consequences of this position)) Since man is not created in the image of God, then he is under the responsibility to create his own image. Hence, any idea of obligation or ethical demand, is entirely self-imposed.
Obligation Is Imposed by People
This is the more tenable position in modern society. The society is the one who determines obligation. Some have called this the “Social Contract Theory”. In other words, these obligations stem from society at large; they are outside ourselves. This position is usually framed this way: “We are part of a society, individuals cannot be a law unto themselves, otherwise we would have anarchy. Therefore, society is to establish laws.” In our modern political language, this would be equivalent to the concept of democracy. That is, the majority rules or the voice of the people is the voice of God. In this position, though somewhat more acceptable than the first, morality or obligation may change within societies after a certain time. What is unreasonable today, may be reasonable tomorrow in accordance with society’s dictates. ((One needs only consider the issue of homosexuality. This practice was considered a capital crime only 100 years ago, but now it is considered acceptable and intolerance towards it, may lead to jail time))
Obligation is Divinely Imposed
Holmes summarizes this simply when he writes, “We ought to do what God wills.” ((Holmes, Arthur. Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions, pg. 74)) This position assums that there is an absolute God who created heaven and earth and all that is within them, and that human beings are reflective of this God in what is called the Imago Dei. This presupposition asserts that obligation is settled and does not change. Though this position may be held by different religions, since all religions claim to serve a deity of some sort, only the Trinitarian Christian position speaks of humanity as Imago Dei. That is, only Christianity teaches that we are made to reflect God’s image. We are in other words, image-bearers, imitators of God’s purity. We are to reflect this God, and consequently to obey Him.
Since this is a simple introduction to theories of obligation, allow me to make a few observations. The first theory teaches that the “ought” is self-imposed. The supposed strength of this position is that each of us live in different islands. We are captains of our faith and determiners of our fate. In our own island, we decide what is right and wrong. We are autonomous creatures derived from some evolutionary process. No one can make claims of authority over another, because each person is an authority in and of himself.
This position is pervasive in our society and it dies everyday. It dies because, at every instance, someone is making some imposition upon you. Whether it be at work, school, or at home, no human being, no matter how individualistic he feels today, can escape the obligation of another upon you. In order to be consistent with this position it would require total rebellion from all sources of authority. Certainly, this would lead to punishment from society at large, and it is likely you will spend your days as you intended, not in an island, but in a prison cell.
The second position teaches that the “ought” is socially imposed. This is much more reasonable than the first one. Its greatest strength is that we are not individuals, but part of a particular society. The society, made up of individuals make up the obligations.
The serious deficiency of this position is that it too denies God. Even though some Christians claim to hold to some modified version of this, ultimately this position does not rest on the absolute authority of God, but on the absolute authority of society. In this sense, society itself becomes god. But how are we as people to deal with the ever-changing philosophies of society? How are we to deal with the changing worldviews that occur when large masses from other societies come to this country? There really is no answer. Though today we may reject Militant Islam, ((Though in my opinion all Islam is militant)) what is to say that the majority some years from now will make Islam the religion of the land? This position is open to many unexpected situations.
The third position, is of course the Biblical one. Obligation must by definition be divinely imposed. If it is not imposed, it suffers the consequences of the previous two. However, this does not answer all questions pertaining to technological advances, the threat of nuclear weapons and so on. Because the question then is, By what standard? What is the standard that all people must follow? Is it some ethereal version of natural law, which has been so pervasive during the Scholastic period? Or is there something more concrete. The answer is, there is something more concrete and that is God’s special revelation. ((Deuteronomy 4:4)) Today, the idea that we are to follow a definite source of authority is absurd. When our society treasures tolerance, except toleration for Christian morals, it is hard indeed to believe that this position can ever have any hold in our society. But yet, this is our goal and our message. This is what Arthur Holmes calls, “a theonomous ethic.” ((In Holmes’ case, he is not referring to theonomy per se, though I strongly believe it is the only consistent position within a divinely imposed ethic)) All ethics and grounding for obligation comes from God, who is the Sovereign imposer.