Saturday, October 8, 2011

E is for Ethics

Most people honestly and sincerely believe that an ethical system deriving from the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition provides the bedrock on which our Western legal and moral traditions have been erected. Yet, if the Judaeo-Christian ethical system is examined closely and critically, it appears very unlike our legal system or our moral tradition.

All of this has been said in different ways by many philosophers, but the news hasn't even begun to penetrate the thick fog of favorable publicity enjoyed by Christianity. Even now, in the 21st Century, there are well-meaning zealots who believe that posting the Ten Commandments in the hallways of public schools will make students more ethical and less likely to use drugs, have sex, or engage in violence.

Most human actions are ethically neutral: Eating lunch, using the bathroom, playing tennis, driving to work, and watching TV are all neutral. Even having sex with another consenting adult is neutral (assuming both partners are unattached). For a human action to be called ethical or unethical, it should have to meet some tests.

Let us postulate, for the sake of simplicity, that for an action to be called ethical, it must be “right” and it must be unselfish. An action which is based upon one’s perceived self-interest, real or imagined, is not truly ethical. Let’s try a simple example: A businessman offers a full, money-back guarantee on the products he sells. Most likely, he is making this offer because it will attract or hold customers. It is simply “good business” to offer such a guarantee. If this is its rationale, such a policy is neither ethical nor unethical. Ethically speaking, it’s neutral. And, in practice, it may or may not prove to be profitable. Let’s try another. A man jumps into a raging torrent to save a child from drowning. He knows the kid’s parents are fabulously wealthy and are likely to give him a huge reward. Good Deed? Yes. Ethical? Not Really.

For an action to earn the name “ethical,” it must be clearly unselfish. A motorist who stops to help a stranger fix a flat tire on a cold, rainy night does something truly ethical. It is “right” and it is unselfish. But even this situation might be ethically tainted. Suppose the stranded motorist is a beautiful, scantily clad young woman and the motorist who stops to help her is a hot-blooded heterosexual male with “lust in his heart.” We might suspect an ulterior motive here—even if it is based on a somewhat unlikely fantasy.

The same is true of acts that are “right” and unselfish but are performed in front of onlookers. The person doing the good deed might be seeking a favorable response from the onlookers or an enhanced reputation in the community. Jesus rightly recognizes and condemns this sort of “grandstanding.” In Matthew 6:5, he says:“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you they have received their reward.” In other words, an action undertaken to receive a reward, even if the reward consists merely in the momentary approval of strangers, is not truly ethical. One thinks of the major league ballplayer who routinely tosses foul balls into the crowd. A nice gesture, but it’s not his ball and giving it up is not unselfish.

According to our strict criteria—both “right” and unselfish—ethical actions are not daily occurrences for many people. Picking up a wrapper from the sidewalk and depositing it in a trash can is ethical—if no one is watching.

What does the Bible say on the subject? Over and over, throughout the Original Testament, God commands the Jews to do this or do that, or, more frequently, not to do this and not to do that. His divine commands are usually backed up by explicit threats. When Jews (individually or as a people) obey God, they are rewarded in various ways; when they disobey they are punished—sometimes very severely. God is the stern parent who demands obedience; the Jewish people are his children. Why do they obey his commands? Because they know they will be punished if they don’t and rewarded if they do. Since God is all-knowing and everywhere, it is impossible to disobey Him and get away with it. Unlike a human parent, God can’t be fooled and He won’t forget.

Therefore, for a Jew to disobey one of God’s commands is an act of stupidity and an act of disobedience. This being the case, ethical considerations are irrelevant. Clearly it is advantageous for Jews to obey God all the time. Obedience is very much in their individual and collective self-interest. Don’t forget: God rewards those who obey Him. Viewed in this perspective, the ethical system of the Original Testament is not really an ethical system at all, it is a reward-punishment system based entirely on an appeal to self-interest. It is stupid to disobey God—sooner or later you will be punished. It is prudent to obey God—you will be rewarded. 

Abraham’s famous near sacrifice of his son Isaac is very much a case in point. God asks Abraham to do a something very wrong—He asks him to commit cold-blooded murder against his own flesh and blood for no reason other than to demonstrate utter submission and obedience to the Divine Will. What does old Abraham do? Does he do the “right” thing by refusing God’s obviously wrongful command to sacrifice Isaac? Not Abraham. In a mindless, conditioned reflex, this supposedly decent man does the “smart” thing—he prepares to kill his own child to keep God from becoming angry with him and punishing him. He thinks only of himself; not his son. His selfishness is beyond measure.

Even some learned rabbis have had the good sense to condemn Abraham’s selfish, unethical behavior. They argue that God never really wanted Abraham to kill Isaac—He was just testing Abraham to see whether he was a truly ethical man, or, simply a mindlessly obedient one. When Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, he had already failed God’s ethical test. Yet, for many centuries, Abraham’s unethical conduct—his stupid, blind faith—has been hailed by Jews, Christians and Muslims as a wonderful example of righteousness. The Danish Christian existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard, hailed Abraham as a “Knight of Infinite Resignation.” For Kierkegaard, Abraham is the supremely ethical man. Surely there must be some basic misunderstanding here. Think of what almost happened from Isaac’s perspective!

Any normal parent in Abraham’s situation would ignore the outrageous command to kill Isaac—dismiss it as a hallucination probably—and risk the consequences. If it was not an hallucination, and if God really means it, He will repeat the demand. When He does, Abraham should have the good ethical sense and the moral courage to tell Him to His face that, if He wants Isaac dead, He should do it Himself. A truly ethical parent should be willing to suffer any punishment before killing his child with his own hands.

Abraham passed the faith test but he failed the ethical test. A test many ordinary parents would have passed.

Either the Original Testament either contains no clear ethical message, or, at best, a badly confused one. You do what God commands; He rewards you. You don’t do what He says; He punishes you. How can this be called an ethical system? It is, at best, a system in which self interest reigns supreme and prudence emerges as the only virtue.

What about the Christian New Testament and its supposedly merciful and forgiving God? There is no question that in the well known story of the Good Samaritan his behavior is truly ethical in the fullest sense of the word—his action is both “right” and unselfish.

However, for the most part, the Christian “ethical system” is similar to the Jewish rewards-punishments system with one very big difference—in the Christian system the rewards and punishments are not handed out here on this earth, but are postponed until the afterlife. And, more importantly, they are enormously magnified—eternity in heaven or eternity in hell is a very heavy number to lay on any mere mortal. (Remember you good Catholics out there, Jesus never once spoke of Purgatory.)

Jesus of Nazareth must have been dismayed and angered by the sinfulness of those around him. So he decided to up the ante on sinners by taking the rewards and  punishments system of Judaism and magnifying it a million-fold. If the certain prospect of eternity in heaven or hell doesn’t scare them into being good people, what will? (The answer to this is obvious: Nothing will—because threats can’t make people good.)

Jesus delivers his core ethical message in his famous Sermon on the Mount. In the first part of his sermon, Jesus speaks of certain traits that he considers “blessed.” Among the “blessed” are those who are poor in spirit, those who are in mourning, those are meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, etc.. After he mentions each one of these positive attributes, he carefully links it to a specific reward that those who possess this trait will receive. The merciful will receive mercy. The meek will inherit the earth, and so forth. Again, what we have is not an ethical system at all, but a series of vague rewards for good behavior, or, for simply having the right disposition.

In his most famous Sermon, Jesus never once asks his followers to do good deeds without dangling some sort of reward or payoff in front of them. In other words, Christians are offered bribes for doing the right thing. The possibility of doing good deeds for their own sake is completely ignored. And this cynical message comes from a supposedly idealistic man—a man some consider näive?

Since the universal Christian God is every bit as omniscient as the tribal Jewish God, the chances of one of the faithful getting away with anything is still zero. God watches everyone all the time. He pays close attention not only to every little thing we do, but also to every little thing we think. Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, goes out of his way to stress this point. Not only your actions, but also your most private thoughts can damn you to hell. The man who commits lust in his heart is every bit as depraved as the man who performs an illicit sexual act with another living human being. A sexual fantasy is every bit as bad as an actual rape. This being the case, virtually every heterosexual male who ever lived is condemned to hell cointless millions of times during adolescence.

But isn’t Christianity—unlike Judaism—supposed to be a “forgiving” religion? Consider the following: At the end of his Sermon on the Mount Jesus says to his assembled listeners: “Be ye therefore perfect.” Has anyone ever laid down a more demanding, less understanding, less forgiving, less merciful command than this one? To expect human beings to be perfect even down to the total suppression of certain commonplace desires, is to demand what never was and never will be. Has anyone, other than a small child, ever gone through a single day of his or her life without once thinking a single “bad” or “impure” thought. This is sheer madness, not an ethical system.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the gospel-writer Matthew reports: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” In other words, what Jesus said in his Sermon makes no logical sense—unless, of course, Jesus is God and he is speaking with “Authority.” Scribes, not being Divine, have to employ logical reasoning and sound argumentation in order to persuade their listeners. But because Jesus is God, you’d better do what He says—not because it’s logical, or that it appeals to your better nature, or because it is ethical—but simply because He—The One Having Authority—says so and you dare not disobey Him.

This arrogance is what astounded the crowd on the hillside that day. The careful listeners among them must have reasoned that this man Jesus is either a nut case or God Himself to talk to us the way he just did. Those with the slightest critical sense must have drawn the former conclusion.

What about turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, etc.. Look closely at Jesus’ advice on turning the other cheek and think about it for a moment. He’s not just advising you to avoid acts of violence—he’s going much further, he’s urging you not to defend yourself when you are attacked. I suppose if you want to get beaten up, or killed, to please Jesus and get into heaven, that’s your business. But what are you supposed to do if your family is being attacked? Are you supposed to stand by prayerfully, thinking elevated thoughts and loving your enemies while a motorcycle gang trashes your house, steals your property, tortures your wife, rapes your daughter and kidnaps your son?

When this is put to them squarely, Christians usually mumble: “Well it’s only supposed to be an ideal—it’s not meant to be taken literally.” Jesus Christ was supposed to be God Incarnate—one wonders why he wasn’t able to communicate his ideas with sufficient clarity that they can be taken at face value. And what does it mean to call non-violence “only an ideal?” It means it doesn’t really work in the actual world we live in; in other words, it’s stupid advice. “Love your enemies” is every bit as stupid. Not actively hating them is more than enough to ask of any normal human being. I have looked for an ethical system in the Bible and have not found one. There are many “values” in the Bible (some admirable) but no discernible system of ethical behavior.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Feodor Dostoevsky, a devout Orthodox Christian, famously argues as follows: “If there is no God, then everything is permitted.” I would argue the reverse: If there is an Almight God like the Jewish or the Christian or the Muslim God—a God who rewards and punishes—then no ethical system is permitted. The mere presence of such a God inevitably reduces everything to a question of rewards and punishments. And so doing makes real ethics impossible.

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