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Articles

Superman, Relativism, and Democracy

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April 14, 2016

“In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision.” Those words, uttered by Holly Hunter’s character Senator Finch in Batman v Superman, are beyond terrifying. In the film, they come in the midst of congressional hearings during which Finch, determined to expose and control Superman’s vigilantism, forcefully insists that no individual can be trusted to do what is good. For Finch, “good” is not fixed or absolute. It doesn’t exist apart from common agreement. And her words, specifically the moral relativism they betray, paint for us an alarming picture of the very real future that may lie ahead.

Moral relativism is a heady concept for the average person. Though we frequently see it manifest in our society, it is not a subject which is well understood or engaged on the popular level. As I sat in the theater and witnessed that scene, seeing the consequences of relativism so clearly on display in the realm of pop culture, I was stunned.

Western society has long been the subject of a power struggle. Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, there has been a steady tide attempting to erode belief in the supernatural. More recently, the philosophical assumptions that issue from broad acceptance of an ultimate reality have come into the crosshairs, and nowhere is this more clearly on display than in terms of morality. But substituting faith in a divine or ultimate authority, in favor of naturalism and rationality is not without its consequences. Indeed, while our culture is in fact becoming more secular, such an experiment—at least in America—necessarily severs our ties to the philosophical and ethical moorings that undergird not only our laws, but our national identity. I am confident we have underestimated the cost.

America is not now, nor has it ever been “a Christian nation.” President John Adams and the United States Senate affirmed as much with the ratification of the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797. But it would be a profound mistake to assume that this means that the United States was established as a secular nation. This is plainly seen in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The very basis from which the American revolutionaries proclaimed separation from British rule was their resolute belief in the natural (unalienable) rights bestowed upon all men by their Creator. And while this is undeniable, the anticipated rejoinder is that such references to a Creator—though present in the Declaration—are absent from the Constitution. And indeed this is the case. However, notice also that Jefferson, and those joining his final dissent to imperialism, affirmed that the truths espoused therein are “self-evident.”

Let us return for a moment to Superman’s dilemma. Standing before a congressional committee, the hero of Metropolis is facing the ire of a Senator whose foremost desire is to subject his heroism to government sanction. But most importantly, Senator Finch offers no critique of Superman’s integrity or character to advance her argument. Instead, she makes the case that left to himself, the Man of Steel is incapable of doing what is good because such a thing does not exist absent the consent of the majority. But could this possibly be the case?

I have always found myself standing in judgment of Nazi Germany. I never questioned whether or not the slaughter of innocents was a moral evil. And as I think through the implications of the kind of relativism displayed in that fictional scene on Capitol Hill, I find myself doubling down on my notions of absolutes. I cannot imagine living in a country where winning a majority or plurality is sufficient cause to uproot the moral foundations of an entire people. I cannot imagine living in a country where such victories grant permission to dismiss or undermine those foundations either. But make no mistake, that is precisely the path of relativism.

I am frightened by the words I quoted at the outset not because I am unable to differentiate fiction and reality, but because I fear that reality may soon resemble fiction. Departing from an objective view of morality will bear untold cost. Affirmations of civil liberties and first principles do not float aimlessly in the cultural milieu. They rest on robust foundations. The natural rights we esteem, chief among them a commitment to human dignity, are the results of our forebears’ acceptance of an objective and transcendent reality. But this flies in the face of both secularism and relativism. America, since its founding, has acknowledged that our lives and actions are measured according to an objective standard. What is good, right, and true is so intrinsically and definitively.

Progressives and cultural elites would see secularism stand alone in the public square. And as this shift occurs, the ties that bind our public morals to their foundations will continue to deteriorate until they finally dissolve entirely. But instead of the tolerant and enlightened culture that is anticipated, the result will be a dystopian future that eliminates freedom and autonomy. Imagine a world where even the most basic or innate inclinations and desires are subject to public scrutiny or government oversight. Are we actually willing to embrace a future where there is no such thing as “self-evident” truth?

Moral relativism may come to us as a silent revolution, but it will assuredly be a failed one. It is a philosophy without a foundation and such a system will not bear the weight of a burgeoning democracy. Our government is established and defined by the Constitution and as it turns out, even that document is predicated on self-evident truths and a commitment to natural rights. That is by design. The laws of our nation were written to secure the inherent liberties and inviolable rights of men. They do not exist to codify or sanction the popular opinions of a (voting) majority. Such an arrangement would indeed threaten the very fabric of our society and our identity as a people. If we are to maintain our Constitutional government, we must preserve our national commitments to first principles. We must not yield or waver in our recognition that our rights are bequeathed to us by our Creator. We must not forget that what is good is innately so, and no amount of discussion will make it otherwise.

In the face of these things, I live as a Christian with bold confidence in the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ over every square inch of all creation. As an American, I fear that the moral framework on display in Batman v Superman may indeed portend troubled days to come. In any case, it is not often that we are confronted with a pressing moral issue through the vein of pop culture. Perhaps we should be grateful.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as Director of Content and Chair of Research in Christian Ethics. He holds an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.M. in Public Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24