Michael Horner's Blog

    “I Do Not Like Blue Covers!”

    Written by Michael Horner


    Photo by JR_Paris

    A philosophy student wrote a research paper arguing that morality is subjective – that there are no objective moral values. Judged by its research, scholarship, documentation and argumentation, it was easily an “A” paper. The professor, however, took one look at it, pulled out his red felt pen and wrote ” ‘F’ – I do not like blue covers.” When the student got his paper back he stormed into the professor’s office, “This is not fair! This is not just! I shouldn’t be graded on the color of my cover, but on the content of my paper!”

    The professor asked if the student was referring to the paper which argued that there are no objective moral values such as fairness and justice. The student replied, “Yes, yes, that’s the one!” The professor responded, “Well… I do not like blue covers. The grade will remain an ‘F.”‘ Suddenly the student realized that he really did believe in objective moral values like fairness and justice, and he was expecting them to be applied to his situation right then and there.[1]

    While it is very easy to say there are no objective moral obligations, it is much more difficult to live as if there are none. One of the more popular arguments for God’s existence these days is the moral argument. There are different ways to present it, but I essentially try to help people see that objective moral values and obligations do exist and then argue that God is the best explanation for their existence.

    Most surveys report that between 60% to 85% of people think morality is relative to individual or cultural opinion. However, I think these numbers are soft, and many people are not as ‘morally relativistic’ as they think they are. I find it a very interesting exercise to try and help people see the reality of objective moral values and obligations.

    I’ve found that if I bring up examples of obvious moral atrocities, most people recognize the objective moral wrongness of these actions, despite their avowed relativism. People do recognize that the Nazis Holocaust, genocide in Darfur, raping little girls, and torturing toddlers for sport are not just objectively wrong, but are morally reprehensible and that everyone should agree.

    For the minority who still resist admitting objective moral truth exists, I just personalize the examples to their lives. “What if the little girl being raped and murdered was your little sister or daughter – has the perpetrator done anything morally wrong?” Very few people can avoid drawing the conclusion that something objectively and horribly wrong as taken place, and not just that it was something they didn’t like, or that our culture frowns upon.The examples do not always have to be so graphic either, as the ‘Blue Folder’ story usually makes clear. This story resonates with current students who immediately identify the injustice of the professor’s actions.Even though I have found that the vast majority of the people with whom I share these examples, acknowledge the objectivity of moral values and obligations, there are still some holdouts. Let me know what you think their concerns or arguments might be?

    In the next few blogs I will reveal their concerns and how I respond to them.

    [1] Norman Geisler, “The Collapse of Modem Atheism” in Intellectuals Speak Out About God, edited by Roy Abraham Varghese, (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984) p.147

    13 Responses to ““I Do Not Like Blue Covers!””

    • Jamie Jamie says:

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    • Jamie Jamie says:

      It is true Antony, that no one is accepted by God on the basis of their morality. Jesus death does pay the penalty for sin (past and future) and is the only way to be made right with God. But the impact of receiving that gift from Jesus transforms a person’s life. That’s why Jesus said to a woman who was brought to Him who had been caught in the act of adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on sin no more.” The forgiveness she had received was the motivation for changing the way that she lived. In another place in the Bible we read, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” That’s because Jesus radically changes the way that we live our lives. Our salvation is not earned by good morals nor is it kept by good morals but because of our salvation we have good morals.

      Jesus told a story about a farmer who went out and seeded his field. Some of the seeds landed on the path way and were quickly eaten by birds. Other seeds landed on shallow soil that covered a rocky area. The seeds took root but soon withered and died in the heat of the sun. Other seeds landed on soil that had weeds. The seeds began to grow but were soon choked out by the weeds around it. Other seeds fell on good soil and took root and grew healthy and produced a large harvest. Jesus then went on to explain that the seed was the words of God and the soils are the different kinds of people and how they respond to the message of Jesus. Some people are hard like the path and it’s like the Good News of Jesus just bounces off them. Others may respond positively at first but the word of God only gets a shallow acceptance by them. Pretty soon things start getting hard and they give up on trusting in Jesus and begin trying to create their own way. The weedy soil are those people who hear and initially get excited about what Jesus has to offer but then the lure of materialism and acceptance by other people chokes out their excitement and they chase after those things instead. It is only the good soil that the Word of God penetrates and takes root and produces fruit.

      Jesus was telling us that just because somebody might get excited about the gift of forgiveness that He gives and may begin to show the signs of being a Christian, they haven’t allowed the Word of God to take a hold and transform their life. James, Jesus brother, wrote, “Dear brothers and sisters, what’s the use of saying you have faith if you don’t prove it by your actions? That kind of faith can’t save anyone. Suppose you see a brother or sister who needs food or clothing, and you say, ‘Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat well’– but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, it isn’t enough just to have faith. Faith that doesn’t show itself by good deeds is no faith at all– it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ I say, ‘I can’t see your faith if you don’t have good deeds, but I will show you my faith through my good deeds.'” It is not the things we do that save us but when we are saved we begin to live a moral life. It is a natural response from having been set free from the condemnation of our sin and it is the direct result of having Jesus lead and direct my life.

      So it is not incorrect to say that there are those who claim to be a follower of Jesus but their actions don’t line up with what a follower of Jesus would do. It’s like someone who claims they are a vegetarian but the keep on eating Big Macs. Pretty soon people are going to question their veracity of their claim.

      It is also a misunderstanding of the work of Jesus to say that he removes all responsibility from people to be moral. That was an accusation that was leveled at Paul and his response was very clear, “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more kindness and forgiveness? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?…So since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does this mean we can go on sinning? By no means!” You look at what Jesus taught when He was here and there is no way that you could say that He was helping people to live immorally. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” He then goes on to talk about turning the other cheek, not even having lustful thoughts, and how even calling your brother a fool is the same as committing murder. And He expected His teaching to be followed and made provision for all of His followers to be able to follow them. He told His disciples that after He left He would send the Holy Spirit of God to remind them of all He had taught them. Paul wrote that when we live our lives in step with the leading of the Holy Spirit we will no longer gratify the desire of our sinful nature but instead our lives would take on His character traits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

      So when someone’s life does not reflect those characteristics it is entirely appropriate to question their faith in Jesus. That’s why when someone uses the Bible to justify cruelty to others, both human and animal, they reveal that they have not been fully impacted by the message of Jesus. While at the same time, when a man like John Newton reveals such an amazing turn around even in the face of great opposition, it is not uncommon to see other people place their faith in Jesus.

      Let me also respond to your comment about the parts of the Bible that support slavery. You have to remember that the Bible was written in a very different time than what we find ourselves today. There was not the same kind of social safety net that we have in the western world. There were few options for people in times of severe crisis. There was financial and physical safety in slavery. But God was clear on kind and loving treatment of slaves and emphasized that slavery was not the ideal. Slaves were not to be held for life. Slavery was a temporary measure. The only time that a slave was held for life was when the slave chose to be because of his love for his master.

      But there is no way that one could justify the atrocities that happened to African men, women and children who were robbed of their freedom, taken from their homes and sold into slavery and treated as less-than-human by their masters. It was an evil abuse and misuse of the Bible to justify something so wicked. And to claim that the Bible promotes that is an atrocious lie.

    • Antony Burt says:

      Hi Jamie,

      You said “.. there have been individuals who have claimed to be Christians who have done some terrible things.”

      El wrongo, my dear friend, as a follower of Jesus Christ, they naturally would be bonafide Christians even if you yourself do not accept them as moral. All it takes to ‘be’ a Christian is to accept the Lord. As part of the deal, Jesus absorbs all their sins (that’s why he allowed himself to be killed was to take their sins (past and future).) In the eyes of religion, they are faultless, and get a good shot at heaven. The church sells tickets to heaven quite easily. Morality is not an issue.

      While Jesus is fabled to have preached to be good to all people, his role of a sin eater, destroys his credibility. He removes all responsibility from the people to BE moral: They can kill, and he will forgive them. They can rape and he will forgive them… The ONLY thing he will NOT forgive one for is blasphemy against the holy spirit (you can hurt humans all you want, but don’t step on God’s toes). A very odd clause, but that’s the limit. You can kill 69 teenagers in an afternoon, and if you ask Jesus, he will forgive you….

      Immorality and Christianity indeed are NOT exclusive.

      I did not know that Amazing Grace was written by an ex-slaver. It’s kinda of odd, how the bible can cause one person to see the immorality of slavery, and another to use the same book in support of slavery (the bible has many pro-slavery verses.)

    • Jamie Jamie says:

      You of course are right Antony; there have been individuals who have claimed to be Christians who have done some terrible things. There have also been some Christian groups in history who have perpetrated some horrible atrocities in the name of Jesus. It is a humbling thing to realize that well-intentioned people could be led astray from the teachings of Christ.

      But it is clear to see that these aberrations are indeed a departure from the example that Jesus gave and the commands that He has given His followers. And while the aberrations may be glaring, the positive transformation that has occurred through work of Jesus Christ in the lives of individuals is undeniable. You look at a man like John Newton who was an atheist slave trader in the mid-1700s. Through a close encounter with death in the middle of the North Atlantic he began to search for the truth about God and discovered for himself the transforming power of Jesus Christ. He became a curate in the Church of England and mentored a young William Wilberforce who eventually became the driving force behind the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. John Newton is best known for the song he penned that described the way that his life was turned around by Jesus Christ. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I was once lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.”

      Or you look at the impact that Christianity has had on lives of people in Africa. Matthew Parris wrote an op-ed piece for The Times in London entitled “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God” (you can read the entire article at http://richarddawkins.net/articles/3502-matthew-parris-as-an-atheist-i-truly-believe-africa-needs-god) His point is that in his travels all over sub-Saharan Africa it is undeniable the transformation that has happened in people’s lives when they experience a conversion to Christianity and the impact that it has on the culture as a whole. He writes, “In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

      Or what about all the people who have allowed their stories to be posted on a site called “I Am Second” who tell how putting Jesus first in their lives has transformed them (have a look at some of these at http://powertochange.com/iamsecond) Some talk about broken marriages being saved. Others tell of lives devastated by drugs that are made new. Many of these are high profile stars like professional skateboarder Christian Hosoi, Brian Welch bass guitarist from Korn, and professional baseball player Josh Hamilton.

      These are the people who are following in the footsteps of Jesus and have allowed Him to direct the steps of their lives. The miraculous nature of their stories force us to look beyond the possibility of somebody just cleaning up their life on their own and reveal a supernatural influence that has made all things new.

      “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2Corinthians 5:17-18)

    • Antony Burt says:

      Hi Andrew,

      You give out two recent examples of “godless immorality” from recent press.

      While James Holmes attended a Lutheran Church with his family. Described as a shy boy driven to succeed academically by his pastor, James described himself as agnostic, not atheist as you claim him to be. He killed 12 people and wounded 58.

      Wade Page was a white supremacist, so race is likely his motivation, but he chose a Sikh temple to carry out his massacre. As Wade had frequently talked of an impending racial holy war, one may conclude that religion was indeed part of his life, not atheism. He also mentioned his lyrics touched on religion in a 2010 interview. He killed 6 plus himself.

      Now what about Anders Breivik who bombed a building killing 8 and then waged war against teenagers killing 69. He described himself as 100% Christian, but not excessively religious. Certainly NOT atheist, let alone agnostic.

      Can we ascertain anything from these examples of recent human slaughter? Religion certainly does not automatically make one moral. Indeed, religion because it can so easily provide a “god is on my side” delusion, seems to assist immorality. Look at the killing of witches, tortures used by the Inquisition to see that. A more recent example of religion gone wrong would be that the perpetrators of the religiously motivated terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 felt they had “god on their side”.

      We can easily see that religion does NOT quell evil, but it can indeed promote it or facilitate it.

      “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” – Physicist Steven Weinberg

    • Andrew says:

      @Anthony Burt I am not sure if your aware of current events that have occurred in the past few weeks. As your philosophy for the hope for the future is removing God and getting rid of morality. In the past few weeks the number of senseless murders which have occurred with the shooter in Aurora, Colorado along with the killings of in the temple.

      Both killers where people with no morals who did not believe in God. The fabric of North America is slowly disappearing. If you believe that we are safer because we do not have God then look at past societies which agreed with your views. Hitler wrote Mien Kumph as a replacement for the Bible and removed God from society. I highly doubt the millions of Christians,Jews,Poles, who were either shot, or gassed would agree with your view. If you look the Russian communists during the same era they did not believe in God either and both societies crumbled.

      Your equating all religions as God when religions when it is the evil heart of man that causes the strife not the religious beliefs. If you would actually take time to read the whole Bible you would discover that your bigoted view of the bible is false. I have learned to not debate with people who are atheists but to present to you the message of the hope through Jesus Christ. When Christ walked on earth his greatest commandment was to love my neighbor as myself and to go out and share the good news of salvation.

      God knew that many people like yourself would not accept him and he says so in Matthew 7:13 But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few will find it.

      John 3: 15 so that anyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16. For God so loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who bileves in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17. God sent his son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. 18. “There is no judgement against anyone who believes in him but anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only son. 19. And the judgement is based on this fact: Gods light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than light, for their actions were evil. 20. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear there sins will be exposed. 21. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.

      My purpose in life is to share the news of Christ with everyone I meet so when I stand before God my life will show this and if you choose to reject Christ then my conscious is clear and in a hunderd years if you have not accepted him and stand before God you will not be able to say to God I did not know because salvation was just shared with you. Salvation is simple as if we agree that we are evil and by asking Christ to forgive us of evil and cleanse us then he will.

    • Antony burt says:


      I see that people are leaving religion behind and turning to atheism. This is indeed hope for the future! This is a great trend. We can get rid of backwater ideologies that sever good people from other good people (difference of religion severs ties), or teach that people who are different (or even think differently) are immoral, or less deserving.

      Do I see my children being raised in a safer environment? Well, if they moved to a more secular country like Sweden where crime is lower than in religious countries, then yes, but if they moved to a country steeped in religiousity like Turkey, then no. While MANY influences (poverty, lack of education, duress) may cause people to harm others, religion can adversely cause immorality.

      One need only too look towards our slowly bettering moral codes to see that our future is brighter than our past. In our past we tortured people for being heretics. We killed people who thought differently… And that was just a few hundred years ago. Granted many cultures STILL torture or kill heretics, beat or kill people who think differently, and in some cultures religion (and sometimes political ideologies) push morality way way back. Globally though, we can see a trend for more just morality. Freedom of gays to marry, freedom of woman to vote, animal cruelty protection. endangered species protection, transparency of government. A huge amount of progress is being made.

      Only through discussion and actions can we advance our morality further. We need to discard prejudices taught to us in the past (as in the bible) and progress towards our future without prejudice. We may never reach a level of morality as a whole that we can imagine, but all we can do is try to reach that level.

      I have hope we can discard the immorality of our past and current cultures, but it may take a few thousand years…Our past progress gives me hope we will continue marching forward.

    • Jamie Jamie says:

      An objective moral code created by God would only be scary if He had a cruel, untrustworthy character. But since that God is perfect in love and truth, completely trustworthy in every thought, word and deed, then that moral code, based on His character would be absolutely safe. That is what we see in Jesus Christ: a God willing to humble Himself and go to extraordinary lengths of personal sacrifice to establish relationship with rebellious humans.

      I agree that in many ways there is a greater awareness of God’s moral code in some areas of our world in regards to the intrinsic value and equality of all humanity. I think it is important to point out that most of those who fought for that awareness based their convictions on the Bible and were themselves followers of Jesus. I think of William Wilberforce, the British Member of Parliament who was the driving force behind the laws that abolished slavery in Britain and Martin Luther King, both committed followers of Jesus whose convictions were based on their understanding of God.

      At the same time, I would also suggest that our morality in other areas is not improving but degrading because we no longer look to God for our moral compass. The breakdown of the basic unit of society–the family–is directly a result of our lax morals on sexuality, sanctity of marriage, and a poor view of authority. We see evidence of a lack of moral clarity in our business leaders which demands a greater degree of oversight and legislation to manage ethics. There is a huge distrust in political leadership because half-truths and deceptive spin is the order of the day in that arena. I have a hard time accepting that our current world is improving morally and I don’t think I am alone in that feeling.

      That is one of the reasons that the message of Jesus makes so much sense to me. I look at the world around me and I can agree that “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard.” I look into my own life and recognize that out of my own heart “comes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, eagerness for lustful pleasure, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.” I know that if it is just up to me, I am powerless to make significant change of who I am. And so it gives me great hope to know that, “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” I am also grateful that “those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!”

      All of that resonates with me because it does not put hope in me or the human race. Instead, my hope is in God transforming my heart and setting me on a path that leads to life rather than destruction.

      So Antony, do you see children growing up in a safer environment? Do you see people making better moral choices in their lives today? Do you see a greater degree of trust in our fellow-man because of their improved morals? How solid is your hope?

    • Antony Burt says:

      Hi Jamie,

      1) the existence of god does not scare me at all. It has no power over me at all.
      2) if there were to be an ultimate objective morality, it would have no bearing on if ANYONE on earth agreed with it or not. Imagine (just imagine for this argument) that an objective morality was deemed that murder of first born children was morally correct. Naturally, almost every one on earth would disagree with that moral code, but does that matter? It is an objective morality which is independent upon our wishes or supposed morality. See, OUR wishes have no bearing on what could be an objective moral code, if WE don’t make it. An objective moral code created by God would indeed be scary! We could not improve on it (as you can see we are currently doing with our moral code.)

      3) What gives me hope (in regards to morality) is that our morality is slowly getting better. 2000 years ago woman were mere property. Slaves were common place. Even just hundreds of years ago, women could not be doctors, could not vote, could not inherit… Now our moral code has increased, and we recognize more rights of others. This gives me great hope that we are thinking about morality, and getting better at it. We refuse to stagnate at the moral code entrenched in the bible. If we stayed with the morals in the bible, it would be a sad culture indeed.

    • Jamie Jamie says:

      So what you are saying Antony is that for morality to be objective everyone, without exception, must hold it to be true? And the fact that we have law breakers suggests that those individuals do not see their crime as wrong and thus the morality of the law is subjective? Does that also mean that you are willing to accept that perhaps the decision of the professor could actually be moral? Perhaps there is a cultural setting where that kind of arbitrary grading of papers is morally correct? Is that the kind of world that you prefer to live in? Does the existence of God scare you so much that you would go to such lengths to deny what in your heart you know is true?

      It is my perspective that there are things that are right and things that are wrong. I am pretty confident that on the whole the rest of humanity also recognizes those moral distinctions. I also know that there is within me a self-centeredness that ignores those things that are right and wrong if I think it will benefit me. I am not proud of that reality but I can’t hide from it either. And I don’t think I am alone. I think that problem of self-centeredness is universal to one degree or another. That is why subjective morality scares me so much. I have seen subjective morality take advantage of the weak and the helpless time and again. I have seen whole people groups become the object of genocide because some larger, more powerful group wanted what the weaker people had.

      I am so grateful that there is an objective morality that is firmly established in the character of a perfect God, and that morality is part of the process for humanity to know that He exists and a reason to seek Him. I am grateful for that because that perfect God said, “seek and you will find” and “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” which means that we can live in a world that is free from the self-centeredness of me.

      That gives me hope. What gives you hope Antony?

    • Antony Burt says:

      Hi Jamie,

      It is easy to see the teacher wronged the student, but was he correct to do that? Obviously he thought so. He was not objective, but subjective. He put his emotions before his ethical responsibility for fairness. The student responded subjectively and not objectively.

      The story is inconclusive on morality being objective.

    • Jamie Jamie says:

      Antony, have you considered pursuing a law degree? You are very good at taking a situation which is very clear and muddy it up with a lot of words. That is a valued skill for defense, civil and constitutional lawyers.

      The point of the story Michael wrote about is: it’s easy for us all to recognize that there are things which are clearly right and wrong. At face value, if a professor judged the value of a paper on its cover alone we would all know that he was wrong. Right?!

    • Antony Burt says:

      Two interesting points arise within this little story:

      Since the story does not include other students protesting and parents calling for the dismissal of a teacher who graded a paper out of context, who lied to a student (claiming the reason for the fail was an obvious lie) and for abuse of power (failing a student’s A grade paper to make a point), we must come to the conclusion that the teachers actions were not deemed wrong, but he was subjectively within his rights to do act as he did. We can determine that he was acting morally in the large picture, even if we disagree with him.

      Would a teacher (an figure of authority, and thus setting examples for his students to follow) go directly against Objective Morality Values on purpose, just to make a quick point? Obviously not, as he would have an obligation to be moral at all times. This would imply the teacher was not bound by moral obligation to be moral and just, but was willing to flaunt his authority and demoralize a hard working student to make a point which could have been done in a discussion. The teacher applied subjectivity (human emotions) to his own morality, and stood upon the moral rights of the student, thus showing himself to not believe in (or at least obey) Objective Moral Values. If a person can not obey his moral values, he is applying them subjectively.

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