Further Thoughts on Ethics, Post Jesus

When I was a Christian, I would oftentimes become frustrated while attempting to understand a moral sentiment put forth through biblical text.  Why in the world would God make absolute morality so ambiguous?  When Moses wrote, “thou shalt not kill,” did he mean “thou shalt not kill” or did he mean “thou shalt not kill without just cause?”  What about abortion? War? Poverty? At times a golden nugget in Scipture would pop out that seemed to make things clear, but there was always a level of ambivalence that I felt was never fully appreciated by the mass of Christianity.

Upon looking to my struggles through developing a proper hermeneutic of Scripture to find a moral system fair to the text, and the supposed author of the text, I cannot help but laugh.  Wading through the waters of religious dogma to discover an absolute morality seems so much easier than developing a moral system beyond a conception of a divine transcendent being which by necessity decrees certain actions “good” and certain actions “bad.”  When I left Christianity–in fact, in my preparation to leave Christianity, even–I recognized that I would somehow need to construct (or not construct, perhaps) a new moral system.

So where to begin? Well first I had to assess if in fact there was morality.  Without Christianity, is moral nihilism the path to go?  Or perhaps there is morality, but it is subjective.  Maybe there is still some sort of objective morality existing independent of humanity.  What a mess!  As I collected my thoughts and began to sift through the arguments and counter arguments, I found myself most convinced by the though of Spinoza (there is nothing that is inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’), Hume (moral values simply correspond to our social engrained sentiments and passions) and more recently Bernard Williams (actions are described as “good” or “bad” not in a universal sense, but through individual passions and social construction).

In other words, no objective morality exists.  There is no ethical system that was created from the beginning of all time and by which mankind must operate or face some kind of posthumous torturous punishment.  Warning! Warning! No morality = promiscuous sex and murder of passion and selling drugs to children!

Wrong.

Yes, I would deny that there is (or at least there is any evidence for) an objective system of morality by which all humanity should conform its behavior, but that does not stop the development of morality.  At this point, equivocation becomes a problem.  There is no morality, but we can develop morality.  Isn’t that a paradox.  Allow me to clarify, unless otherwise specified, I intend “morality” to mean “a system of principles and actions which are considered by an individual or group to be good.” Again, by “good” I mean in a very simple sense to be “beneficial, of a positive consequence.”

Well why in the world would I want to construct a system  of principles and actions that are good.  If there exists no morality, I am indeed free to murder the guy that cut me off on the freeway, or take the purse full of money held by the well-to-do woman in the supermarket.  Enter the influence of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jaques Rosseau (ironic perhaps, because they are moral objectivists).

Hobbes speaks of a ‘state of nature’ in which each human is involved in a ‘war against all’ because they exist in perfect ‘autonomy.’ In this state of nature, I am perfectly free to murder tha man who cut me off or to take the purse of the rich woman.  It is my right, because my liberties are not restrained by a moral code.  It won’t take me long to realize that those individuals are also perfectly free to murder me or steal my property.  Cue the war against all.  Solution? My conscious decision to surrender my right to murder or steal in exchange for their decision to do the same. Wow, we just created the beginning of civil society.

Now there are distinct differenes between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, but for my purpose here, they each put forth a common theme: social contract theory.  I deny the existence of any moral absolute, I am perfectly free to do as I wish.  For a purely egoistic motive, I surrender some of those rights to secure my own protection.  Thus, the development of a system of “morality,” I not submit myself to a system of principles and actions intended to promote a form of common benefit.

For me, the story doesn’t end there.  This seems to be incomplete.  A description of morality develops rather than a prescription of what morality should be.  What constitutes the common good? How do we get there? What criteria should I follow to make decisions?

Enter here the influence of John Stuart Mill and other Millian utilitarians.  Though I find Aristotelian virtue ethics and Kantian deontic ethics to be tempting, they are far from satisfying (though for the sake of time and energy, I won’t get into why just now).  The influence of Mill on me is twofold: first the idea of liberty (quanitly enough, from his work On Liberty) and the idea of utilitarianism (you guessed it, from the book Utilitarianism).

In chapter five of On Liberty, Mill puts forth the idea that there are two maxims by which we should be governed.  He says, “The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself… Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or legal punishment.”  Clever guy.  That is, an action that has no affect–positive or negative–on those around me, has no place in the sphere of social regulation (though arguably, every action has infinite effects… but thats off topic).  So *gasp* interracial couples or homosexual couples can marry.  At the same time, when my action begins to have consequences outside of myself, then I am fair game for moral judgment from my society.  So selling drugs on the playground is wrong.

Also through the thought of Mill, and commentators on Mill down to the present day, I draw upon the idea of utilitarianism.  By itself, utilitarianism seems to be an incomplete ethical theory (most good for the most people, but what defines “good?” and just how exactly are you going to calculate the amount of good an action does?).  However, when one bases a moral system on the idea of secular social contract (there is no inherent “good” and “evil,” but as a society we agree to certain standards of “good” action and “bad” action), it becomes quite possibly to use utilitarianism as the structure through which an ethical decision is made.

So persons X, Y and Z decide to end their war for resources R and territory T (social contract). How then do they determine that action B is better than action C for the community? Say action B provides a high degree of happiness (philosophically speaking, satisfaction) to person X but an extremely low degree of happiness to persons Y and Z. Action C, on the other hand, provides a moderate degree of happiness for persons X and Y and a high degree of happiness for person Z.  Well, action C seems to be the reasonable choice. Person X, then, agrees to forgo his potential for a higher degree of hapiness for the sake of the community.  At the same time, person X can rest assured that perhaps later action D will be more beneficial to him, etc.

 Now much of this may be rambling nonsense, but this is how my quest for developing an ethical system is progressing so far.  The capstone course for philosophy majors is the production of a philosophical research paper during their final semester.  I intend this to be the rough idea driving my paper: that social contractiarianism is the best explanation for moral systems and qualitiative, egalitarian utilitarianism is the best structure for that moral system.

Perhaps working through this mess of thoughts is harder than discovering the correct hermeneuetic through which to read the Bible, but it has been, and hope will continue to be, much more satisfying.

“What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”  Friedrich Nietzche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 153

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12 Responses to “Further Thoughts on Ethics, Post Jesus”

  1. Sounds good to me. 🙂 I liked your explanation of the “beginning of civil society.”

  2. I think that morality has some basis also in our genetics and innate psychological functioning. For example, the incest taboo is activated among siblings who are together in the early years of life, but is often transgressed when those same siblings have been separated – the same aversion is absent. Likewise, there seem to be strong moral codes regarding treatment of kin and offspring, and innate favouritism for biological kin over non-biological kin.

    However, while these may be programmed, evolved dispositions I think there is considerable room for the ongoing establishemtn of cultural morality which, by virtue of our frontal lobes, we can engage and employ to the betterment of ourselves and the human race.

    I am so utterly frustrated however by those who suggest that man was utterly corrupt pre-Moses and Mt Sinai. It’s as if we all went around burning our grandmothers and selling our sisters into slavery before Moses pointed out a better way.

    So, in summary – I think we have an inbuilt propensity to engage in many moral, compassionate activities (largely because in so doing we advantage ourselves and our genetic kin – ‘kin altruism’ and in so doing improve our own genes’ survival), but we also engage in a more macro-level cultural morality based on the emergent norms and expectations of our society.

    One must only hope we will soon banish the unhelpful and divisive (e.g. homosexuality=abomination) vestiges of religious morality, retaining that which is useful and was, arguably, pre-existing anyhow.

  3. No Morality? Was Hitler justified in committing the holucaust? No body should judge him. He was just following his genetics. (Factieously)
    Some other thoughts: Use scripture to clarify scripture. We can concluded that the 10 commandments mean “thou shalt not murder” because in other portions of the text, killing by accident and in self defense is justified. War is also justified.

  4. Buddhism speaks of action not in terms of good or evil. Actions are described quite often in terms of “skillful” or “unskillful”, i.e. beneficial to us on journey to extinguishing or not.

    While there are people who find killing in all forms immoral, this is how I think: you can kill out of self-defense, or back at someone else if they kill someone you love and you are one of that dead man’s most beloved.

  5. It seems to me as if your ramblings are following after philosopher after philosopher through history. Have you ever read Aristotle on ethics? I’d suggest it, it would prove enlightening.

    I’d also suggest a tough little book on modern meta-ethics. Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” If you can defend JS Mill and Hume after reading his critique, more power to ya. I think his debunking was concise. And complete.

    I also don’t think any *thing* or *event* is itself inherently good or bad. But then MacIntyre pointed out that idea is a recent innovation in modern ethics. It can be tossed very safely.

  6. Mike,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I would love to hear more completely what you have to say on the topic. As always, my thoughts are in development as I think and reflect on the world. I’m not sure that I would ‘defend JS Mill and Hume’ anyway, but I do think each has had something to contribute to the millenia old discussion.

    As for, MacIntyre, I haven’t read that particular book, but I am familiar with good old Alasdair (what a neat name, might I add). I am sure he is well read, intelligent, and a compelling writer, but I’ve never found an Aristotelian virtue-driven ethic to be all that convincing. But as I said, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.

    Thanks for the comment,

    CTC

  7. There are two lies you must never buy into:

    1-(with regard to you, as often spouted by fundies): You can’t be a moral person if you don’t believe in God

    2-(with regard to themselves): I’d be completely evil and depraved if it weren’t for my faith ~or~ I used to be evil and depraved until God “saved” me.

    The first one, you know perfectly well is a lie. It’s the kind of statement you smile at and walk away from. You will have lots of opportunities to practice the smile and the walk 🙂

    People who hand you the second one are a lot more interesting to analyze. Are they saying that underneath the benign, pious exterior, they secretly long to hurt others? Ooh, scary. It sounds to me that they sneaked the “get out of jail free” card off the Monopoly board and are just keeping it quietly in their pocket, waiting for the day when they chuck all their inhibitions and go on a rampage. Then it will be “Oh, well, I know God loves me and I’m saved, so none of that matters.”

    If they are saying that only God stands between them and 25-to-life, that’s so sad! Here is someone who had or has evil impulses, and has demonstrated that at some point along the line they were strong enough to use their INBORN SENSE OF REASON to overcome … and then they just toss that away and give credit to an entity that doesn’t exist.

    Your blog is much more thoughtful and reasoned than mine — I go in for the angry vents.

    Best of luck to you (luck, as in, you make your own).

    /v

  8. Derek Rishmawy Says:

    Umm, wow, a lot going on here. First of all, the next 4 points I’m writing purely as a philosophy graduate and not even as a Christian.

    1. MacIntyre’s critique is a devastating blow to modern/Enlightenment moral theories. I seriously recommend reading him before banking on your social contract/utilitarian blend. Meta-ethics are crucial. Whether or not you buy virtue-ethics, you really ought not ignore it. (Plus, it’s a really fun read!)

    2. Social Contract Theory and the “state of nature” proposals have never really been about describing the actual development of morality. I’m pretty sure you know that, but it seems like you’re taking Locke’s, Hobbes’ and the rest of the crew’s thought experiments to be their actual positive account of it developed. (Which in any case are extremely dubious in with regards to historical accuracy.) Also, Utilitarianism and Social Contract Theory are generally played off of one another. John Rawl’s wrote developed his Social Contract theory as an alternative to Utiliarianism.

    3. Utilitarianism is ridiculously flawed, without even referencing theology. If you want to read a critique of Millian, or Rule Utilitarianism, you can look up Peter Singer, an Act Utilitarian, and his critique of Mill’s more nuanced account. Beyond that, Utilitarianism is an extremely malleable system in which many intuitively morally atrocious acts can be justified quite soundly. For instance, the classic example of the village whipping boy. One can argue quite soundly that it may be the morally right thing to do, according to the principle increasing the greatest amount of pleasure and avoiding the most amount of pain, to have one. If it’s the case that in allowing a village to take out all of its rage, anger, etc. out on one miserable soul, which can only suffer a certain, finite amount, you can avoid a much larger amount of pain and increase overall well-being, then this, according to Utilitarian philosophy is the right thing to do. This can also be applied at the corporate level. If it’s the case that by enslaving and subjugating one small part of society, there will result an overall greater amount of pleasure and an avoidance of a greater amount of pain, then, it is actually the morally right thing to do. (Note: this is quite compatible with your seemingly innocuous statement: “there is no inherent “good” and “evil,” but as a society we agree to certain standards of “good” action and “bad” action.” The idea that the rule of the majority actually dictates morality; that just because a bunch of people say its ok, then its ok; that might makes right, instead of right making might, is the totalitarianism of the majority and can be and has been used to justify anything from the Holocaust to the Gulag. This is not to overstate the case at all. This is actually where Social Contract theory and Utilitarianism conflict. In the state of nature, or behind the “veil of ignorance” in Rawls’ terms, no-one would enter into a society in which they could be arbitrarily placed at the bottom of the social chain according to a Utilitarian ethic.) Quite frankly, there is no reason to think Utilitarianism is even close to compatible with egalitarianism, especially since one of the leading Utilitarian thinkers of the day, Peter Singer, has used this moral logic to justify involuntary euthanasia, a 30-day “return policy” on infants (infanticide), bestiality, and a number of other morally reprehensible positions.

    4. There is also the questionableness of the idea of a simple definition of good as simply what is “beneficial” or whatever. This raises the question: ‘beneficial’ to whom? According to who? What standard? And as for the nebulous phrase “happiness”, again I ask: which definition of happiness? Why your definition and not mine in the case that we disagree?

    On top of this, there is the question of the appropriateness of simply arbitrarily choosing one system of morality over another, seemingly without reference to anything except one’s or even society’s personal preference. Again, this leads down the Totalitarian road when applied at the social level. At the personal level, it ends up sliding into some sort of subjectivism unless you make the claim that this ethic is actual, real, and binding in some serious, transcendent way. If not, moral statements move from being statements of moral facts, to expressions of personal preference. “X is wrong” becomes “I don’t like X” or “a large segment of society doesn’t like X.” Which then moves from the realm of ethics to that of psychology or sociology.

    5. The fact that you couldn’t arrive at a hermeneutic for interpreting scriptural ethical injuctions does not entail that there isn’t one. All that really means is that you couldn’t find it. Also, no intelligent religious thinker claims that the Bible or religious belief automatically makes ethics easy. Go read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” and you’ll see that quite clearly. What they do claim is that it at the very least gives us certain starting points and a real, metaphysical ground for ethical claims. If you reject that, fine. I understand that completely. But I would hate for you to confuse the claims.

    There is much more to say. I am however, too tired to say it. I’m sorry if I’ve been rude at any point in this discussion. I simply get alarmed when I hear certain proposals with the most disastrous consequences put forward. It’s a bit of knee-jerk reaction.

    Derek

  9. First things first, don’t feel like you have to qualify every comment with a disclaimer. I’m not easily offended, and if I were, this is ultimately an anonymous blog, I won’t be losing sleep over it. Beyond that, I enjoy the discussion. 🙂 On to your comment…

    (1) As I said, I literally did add MacIntyre to my “to-read” list. I do, however, feel compelled to admit my bias going into the text. I do not expect his work to be a “devastating blow” to the thoughts that are currently swirling around my head. That said, I would like to think of myself as honest and objective enough to give him a fair shot.

    (3) As for your critique of Utilitarianism, I think perhaps we are coming from two radically different perspectives of the world that the way we are looking at this is almost irreconcilable. That is to say, your critique is grounded in the assumption that there is some objectively existing “good” and utilitarian thought fails to meet the standard. As one who has (at least theoretically) rejected the existence of any “good” moral properties, I am not seeking the “right” ethical system. On the other hand, I am seeking a beneficial system to make sense out of our circumstances in the world.

    As for your village whipping boy example, I admit this is something that a pure utilitarian has to deal with. And it is exactly why I have been unable to force myself to join the ranks of a pure utilitarian ethic. I do not propose that utilitarian ethics can sustain itself. I do think, however, that when operating within a specific framework (i.e. Enlightenment social contractarianism), utilitarianism can perhaps be the best mechanism for moral decision making.

    (4) I’m running out of time, I’m sure this will come up again soon, so I’ll deal with this later. 😉

    (5) As for this, I think the fact that Christian thinkers for the past two thousand years have gone back and forth about Biblical moral sentiments, how to discover them and how to apply them is an indication of its ambiguity. Ultimately, a Christian has to simply accept one of the many systems through which to interpret the Bible and hope it is the right one, or close to it.

    It seems to me that if God has decreed and/or allowed the Bible to be written in such an ethically ambiguous way, he has allowed that an individual commit atrocious acts not because he intends to do so, but because he does not know any better. If that is the case, it would seem to be a strike against God’s character.

    Disclaimer: I want to make absolutely clear that I am not the sharpest crayon in the box. I am a philosophy major, but my interests lie more in the humanities component of my undergraduate career. In a live debate, I have no doubt that you would be able to wallop me, and good. I’m just a simple country kid who happened to get the opportunity for a college education, trying to make sense of the world around me. I’m not sure why I felt the need to throw that out there, but I did.

  10. Derek Rishmawy Says:

    CTC (CarriedtheCross),

    Thanks again for the openness and the willingness not to get offended or whatever. You’ll have to forgive my constant disclaiming. Force of habit as I’ve been in many conversations where, what appeared to me to be simple argumentative points, were taken as personal attacks. Its kind of left me wary on that point. Also, on the “country boy going to college thing”…totally cool. I’d like to let you know though, that I quite frankly think you’re one of the smartest or at least most reasonable interlocutors I’ve ever had this kind of discussion with. So, no worries. (Also, I’m actually pretty fresh out of college myself. I think we’re actually the same age probably.)

    1 and 3. I think its funny that you talk about “two radically different perspectives of the world that the way we are looking at this is almost irreconcilable” as that is one of the main issues that comes up in MacIntyre’s work! He deals with different moral traditions and actually has a second book called “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” where he develops this idea further. I think you’ll like him more than you expect. 

    Beyond that, I’d like to point out that your use of the term “beneficial” already assumes some sort of scale or standard by which you’re judging the effects of certain actions or even systems. That’s a kind of begging the question. You already assume some notion of good, by which to measure your moral system. Or, if not, then all the word “beneficial” means is “my preference.” In which case, these words don’t mean anything. C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man”, (which is not necessarily a Christian work, but more a moral one), speaks to this issue quite profoundly. Its also a pretty quick read. Takes a couple hours at the most.

    My point is actually to unsettle your theoretical rejection of moral realism. I’m actually banking on the fact that there are moral facts, (like the fact that torturing babies, raping women, enslaving other people, is really, actually wrong at some fundamental, non-deniable level) and that you deep down know this, in order to show you why your theoretical position is unsuitable and wrong and at odds with your deeper intuitions. Its kind of a reductio.

    Utilitarianism: rule utilitarianism almost inevitably turns into act utilitarianism, which always can be used to justify terribly wrong things (ie. whipping boy, slavery, etc.) You can also come up with evil rules like: its ok to punish people for crimes they didn’t commit as long as it has the effect of deterring more crimes and thereby decreasing pain and suffering. My point with this is to point out that Utilitarianism is not a suitable aid for moral reasoning. Its inherently flawed.

    5. Of course, I’ll give some of the classic Christian answer about Biblical interpretation: Context, genre, historical setting, etc. makes many of these issues tricky etc. One thing I will say is that, as to the issue of ontological grounding, and certain basic issues, etc. having a Biblical orientation is a step up.

    Good times. 

  11. recoveringselfhelpjunkie Says:

    …very interesting takes on some heavy subjects there. I’d like to chew on this one before commenting too much. But I would say you seem to be very thoughtful and smart.

  12. It seems I’ve lost not only my head-er, but the host for said same, as well.

    Oh well. It was time for a makeover, anyway.

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