Thoughts on Ethics, Post De-Conversion
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!
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