moral fear

Ethical discourse, I suggest, is degraded and corrupted by fear.  I’m not talking about the healthy protective fear that flows from love, but rather the unhelpful power-grasping fear that is its own source.  Below I’ll suggest two equal-opposite examples of this power-grasping fear, and then I’ll offer a suggestion about a third, ‘middle’ way.

On the one hand, we can see a fearful response to ‘misbehaviour’.  This kind of fear is reactive, and wants to (at best) guide or (at worst) control human behaviour.  It often takes the form of wanting to ‘raise’ ethical standards, or perhaps turn back the clock to prior times where standards were ‘higher’.  The logic seems to be along the lines of:

  • People misbehave
  • People misbehave because they don’t know what is good behaviour, and/or cultural moral standards are too permissive
  • Therefore, to improve behaviour, more moral instruction and/or more strict morals is needed

On the other hand, there seems to be a fearful response, not to misbehaviour, but to the effects of perceived misbehaviour.  This, too, is a reactive fear, and wants to protect people from (at best) false guilt or (at worst) any guilt.  It often takes the form of ‘updating’ or loosening ethical standards.  The logic seems to be something like:

  • People harm themselves and others
  • People harm themselves and others because they feel acute moral guilt
  • Therefore, people will harm themselves and others less if we loosen ethical views that are too outdated and/or strict

The point here is not to say that morals never need to be adjusted in either direction.  Arguably, they can be unhelpfully permissive or unhelpfully strict.  The point has to do with the way that fear plays a role, both in the desire to make morals, ethics, and laws, more strict, or less strict.

As suggested above, fear can be helpful.  Among other things, we should have a healthy fear of false guilt. Auckland-based theologian Neil Darragh calls this ‘disabling guilt’, signalling the way that victims of it are disabled from feeling and acting and being as they should.  But this false guilt is flanked by what he calls ‘enabling guilt’, which – contrary to what we often hear – is actually helpful in that it assists us to face our wrongdoing, take responsibility for it, and amend our behaviour and grow morally and personally.

The problem with the two types of reactive fear above is that they tend to short-circuit moral discourse and reflection.  Fear cements people, cornering them into angry and aggressive (or passive-aggressive and condescending) dismissal of those they disagree with.

Patient discussion is better.  People may not instantly agree when it comes to a particular activity and whether or not feeling guilty about it is enabling or disabling.  But at least they might be able to understand one another.

religion-free ethics?

A quick reflection and question as I dig into my Master’s mini-thesis which will use sociological methodology to discover how non-religious people think about ‘wrongdoing’ or ‘sin’, both in terms of what they believe about wrongdoing, and what they ‘hear’ when Christians talk about it.

At any rate, one secular book I’m flipping through is Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion by Phil Zuckerman.  He repeats the familiar line about non-religious people being as-good-as (or better than! p. 122) religious people.  This is supported (over and against the detached-from-reality musings of C.S. Lewis “between his sips of tea”) by the empirical testimony of a series of post-religious-now-secular people.

All talk of “how unhelpful the word ‘religion’ is in conversations like this” aside, I want to reflect on the socially-constructed aspects to ethics.  Yes I just said that.  Whatever anyone thinks, positively or negatively about God’s ability to break into the human discourse and direct, dictate, shepherd, shove, manipulate, move, coax or command it this way or that way, we all acknowledge that ethics is at least a human conversation.  There is a moral Zeitgeist.

In light of this obvious reality, it would seem methodologically problematic to be comparing the ethics of a) Christians, who are deeply immersed in the moral Zeitgeist of western – or in this case American – culture, with b) post-Christians, who remain influenced by the previous immersion in the ‘religious’ moral conversation which, at least in principle, has Christ and Scripture as it’s locus and telos.  In short, because (in this case) American Christians are more influenced by American culture than many realise, and American post-Christians are more influenced by Christian teaching (of a very particular kind of authoritarian, moralistic flavour, I suspect) than some may realise, the comparison seems problematic.

To really prove the thesis that non-religion maketh man more moral than religion (granting this problematic usage of the term ‘religion’), wouldn’t you have to find a specimen that was living in a religion-free context, so that the specimen was fully free of religious motivations, assumptions,  habits and practices and that the pure, untainted non-religious ethic could shine in all it’s unadulterated glory?  Rather than compare Christian to post-Christian, I think the thesis would find better data if it compared Christian to pre-Christian.

Thus concludes my rambling on this thought.  Back to reading!

a working metaphor

More and more, I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian moral life is the role of active, moral effort.

By this, I’m talking not only about the mental/psychological task of working hard at discerning what is ‘right’ or ‘God’s will’, but particularly the gritty, tiring, laborious work (but not ‘works’ – read on) doing God’s will.  Training yourself to do acts of love and service instead of (at best) nothing at all or (worst of all) of acts of harm and selfishness.

Not surprisingly, if you know me, I’m finding N.T. Wright just brilliant on this.  Video here.  Book I’m currently reading here.  He helpfully navigates the territory of the debate concerning how we develop Christian character, and particularly the question of the role of our own moral effort in this process.  Is it a matter of simply trying hard enough (to make yourself good enough), as comes through in popular portrayals of Christian faith (based no doubt on a lot of actual teaching/instruction)?  Or is it a matter of resting from any trying at all, and simply waiting on God to empower, motivate and enable you, as comes through in not a few reactions to the former?  Wright argues persuasively and thoroughly that it is ‘neither/nor’.  He makes clear the ‘both/and’ view expressed by Paul and the rest of the New Testament.  Both my own moral effort; and God’s enabling presence alongside and underneath me.

As usual, the worldview one is working with is everything.  And here the tension between monistic and dualistic frameworks are evident.  If reality is, at utter rock bottom, essentially one thing, then it’s hard to have any sense of both/and.  And if reality is characterised by not only a relational duality, but a dualism where the two ontological realities are fundamentally opposed to and detached from one another (i.e. the Creator is not involved within creation at all…), then this both/and is just as impossible.  Indeed, much modern naturalism has simply cut the strings of an ‘unnecessary’ deity who had been ‘kicked upstairs’ by 18th century Enlightenment philosophy.  We inherit much of this naturalism today, as we breathe the air of an intellectual (and epistemological) tradition that fails (or refuses) to see any trace of God in the world, and strips it of its title ‘creation’ and calls in ‘Nature’ instead, leaving us with an utterly God-less view of the world.

This general (and powerful) shift in popular imagination (and let’s be honest, at the level of ultimate reality, it’s a matter of imagination, not observation) has fed into the particularly Christian (and biblical) debate about how we should picture this both/and of God’s work and our work in Christian living.

I think metaphors are the best we can do, often.  And perhaps multiple metaphors are needed to capture this.  Wright makes the point that a picture of two humans collaborating on one activity doesn’t quite get it, as though ‘walking by (or in) the Spirit’ was analogous to working alongside another human such that you put in 50% and so does God.  It’s not like that.  Any good metaphor will capture at least three things (and more):
a) the ontological difference between God and humans
b) the utter human dependency of humans upon God
c) the very real human responsibility to act and choose

I can think of no better metaphor than the person of Christ.  But unfortunately, this re-raises the whole question, for (if we affirm Christ’s dual nature as Scripture teaches) how do we conceive of the relationship between Christ’s divinity and his humanity.  Is he a human puppet for a divine hand?  Is he basically just human?  Is he mostly divine and just appeared to be human?  Much rich and wonderful theology (since the 1st century as the apostles countered Gnosticism and docetic Jesus) is devoted to clarifying and addressing these questions.

But what other metaphors might we use?

value & purpose

Whilst a quantitative ontology is perfectly useful for scientific study, only a qualitative ontology can make the necessary (qualitative) value judgments that form the foundation of ethics. Even the ‘obvious’ idea that suffering is ‘bad’ is a qualitative (‘bad’) ontological (‘is’) statement.

And whilst a descriptive teleology is wonderful for observing how things ‘do’ tend to behave, only a prescriptive teleology can provide goals against which actions can be said to be ethical or not. The observation that rapists ‘do’ tend to have forceful sex is a descriptive (‘do’) teleological (‘tend to’) statement. But only a prescriptive teleology can establish goals with which rape can be said to be inconsistent.


behold “the ladder of ethics” – a.k.a. an explorative conceptualisation of the steps we take (consciously or subconsciously – considered or assumed) when we deal with ethics/morals/laws/etc.

A while back, I did a post called ‘ontos|telos|ethos‘, and I’ll build on that, adding the codification of law (greek: nomos) to the scenario, hence, ontos, telos, ethos and nomos – or οντος → τελος → ηθος → νόμος.

  • Laws (good or bad, subjectively or objectively formed) are based on
  • ethical principles/opinions (good or bad, subjective or objective) which are based on
  • goals or ‘ends’ (good or bad, subjectively or objectively formed) which are based on
  • essence or nature – including what the thing is worth (good or bad, subjectively or objectively formed)

This is a strictly philosophical accounting of ‘the ethical ladder’ (as I understand it currently).  One can give a scientific or empirical accounting of laws, ethics, goals and nature – but it would of course be restricted to scientific (and thus prescriptively indifferent) modes of analysis.  No sorting a good law, principle, goal or nature from a bad one.  Just indifferent, numerical, statistical quantities.

* * *

P.S. – Interestingly, Christianity can be seen in terms of this ‘ladder’ with each rung being revealed through Love.

  • Laws  = the highest Law: Love
  • ethical principle  = do what is Loving
  • goals or ‘end’ = to become like God who is Love
  • essence or nature: all reality grounded in God who’s essence/nature is Love