Friday, April 15, 2011

No Cornerstone: Modern Western Ethics

In my day job I am a business manager and recently an acquaintance of mine who also works in the business world but has a philosophy degree were discussing the pervasiveness of unethical behavior in the business world. It did not take long for the conversation to move to the foundational question of the basis of ethics itself. This is an ancient argument (dear Ethyphro) and we each made various observations about it.

As we spoke I began to reflect upon the fact that we are in a culture clearly but slowly moving from certain assumed foundational standards to something else. It is this ill defined something else that causes much of our frustration and is an unending source of concern for Christians. It also is a much broader issue that cannot be restricted to business ethics.

In the west the teachings of Christianity were not only foundational to the faith of individual believers but eventually became indispensable to the establishment of western culture itself. It was the Christian view of the foundation of ethics that was assumed by the cultural institutions within which even the unbelievers functioned. Of course a cursory historical analysis will reveal that the depravity of our age is no greater from a theological perspective than that of prior generations. The issue is not that people themselves are any more depraved. It is something else.

What is changing is that within a culture whose ethical assumptions were based upon Christian teaching these standards are eroding. For example, the founders of the United States provided not for adherence to Christian faith as other nations tried to do but rather for the establishment of a public ethic. They recognized that without a basis of moral accountability the secular structure which they erected would collapse under its own weight. In their day (before Darwin) all of the alternatives were essentially theistic. They wished to found a secular state that also provided a moral basis for its governing structures. In the end they divorced the ethical system of Christianity from its theological foundations and appealed to it as a rational expression of the best ethical teaching available. So even in the United States which was federally constituted as a secular state (as opposed to the European countries) the ethical assumptions of the society were based on those of Christianity even though they were not incorporated directly into the governing structures. The culture, though not properly “Christian” in the pure sense was Christian in the sense that the cultural ideals were largely assumed to be those of the Christian bible. 

The attacks on Christianity since the Enlightenment could not ultimately undermine the foundation of the faith of individual believers but have had a tremendous impact on the weakening of the foundations of the cultural structures which guide public and business ethics. Today more than anytime since the initial ascendancy of Christianity the culture must wrestle with the question of what makes something right or wrong. Is it the ten commandments? Sharia law? Simple consensus? As Christian perspectives on right and wrong are being jettisoned there has emerged no obvious replacement though there are many applicants vying for the job. Perhaps the closest thing is a sort of atheistic or agnostic materialism that tries to maintain some value and dignity of human life while denying that its origin or its end has any such purpose, value, or dignity. This seems to me to be intellectually dishonest and ultimately futile. On this basis it is likely that western ethics in the final analysis will degenerate into meaningless assertion of self.

The most intellectually honest of the non-Christian philosophers eventually recognized this. Camus toyed with the idea that the only important question left to answer was the appropriateness of suicide. More potently Nietzsche recognized that as society dismantled its Christian foundations it would face a crisis similar to the kind of postmodern fracturing we see today. Nietzsche was an enemy of Christianity but he recognized that its rejection entailed the rejection of a particular type of civilization (which incidentally he encouraged). He is famous for his expression “God is dead” but he did not mean by this the literal death of a being that he did not believe existed. What he meant was that God was ceasing to be relevant in the life of western culture though that culture had yet to shed the trappings of faith. In that sense we are witnessing what he perhaps saw before most others, namely the rejection of Christian foundations for our very culture and the fallout from it. It is perhaps better to let Nietzsche speak for himself. (In other writings he identifies himself with the “madman” in this story)

“Have you heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God” - As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. “Has he got lost,” asked one. “Did he lose his way like a child,” asked another. “Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated?” -Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God,” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe the blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us - for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

-Friederich Nietzsche - The Gay Science, Book 3, 125 - "The Madman"

The rejection of a Christian informed ethic is a rejection of the cornerstone of western culture. The confusion of our age is in part the result of a desire by many to construct an ethical system that upholds the unique value of humanity while building upon a foundation of despair. Thankfully for those of us who believe we have a solid foundation upon which to build and we pray that the Lord would keep us as we navigate this world. May we be light to those who are in confusion.

No comments:

Post a Comment