When certainty becomes uncertain…
“On what basis do you know what is right or wrong? Who decides?” Such questions are common in Christian debate and I’ve yet to hear even the most famous atheist thinkers provide a good positive answer. But the answer is so close that we’ve overlooked it: Reality.
Reality alone should be the basis for all our knowledge – why should ethics be any different? If we wish to know anything about our world our endeavour is always to gain facts and information as close to the object of our interest as possible. For example, if we wish to know the weight of elephants we get some elephants and weigh them. Is Jamaica an island? Let’s go and see! Or at least ask people who have sailed around it. Did Napoleon lose his pocket-watch at Waterloo? What do eye-witness accounts tell us? Did anyone dig it up recently?
These few examples reveal a progression from the simple and immediate to the complex and historical. Associated with this progression is an increase in effort required to gain knowledge and a decrease in certainty.
Which brings me to ethics. Ethics is, and should be about what is right and good and helpful to people, animals present and future. The good is that which meets our needs and the bad that which harms us. If we make ethics about anything else or anything less we open the doors for an ethic which condones or is indifferent to suffering. And because ethics is about what happens to real people, about reality, it can be complex and there may be cases where no easy answer is available.
This (perfectly natural and not at all novel) approach to ethics will unfortunately always illicit – from those who (think they) get their ethics from God or holy books – the cries of “Who says?” or “That’s just you and your opinion of ethics – purely subjective”.
Here we must be ready to answer: No, this precisely not a dictated (answering the Who?), subjective proposal but an ethical approach rooted in reality by definition. Contrast that with the with religious, faith-based, deity-serving so-called ethics – rooted in dubious texts and nebulous agents subject to a myriad of interpretation. The ethical evaluation precisely the measure of the Help/Harm results in the Real World and the effects on Real People. Real people you can see, listen to and touch.
The “Who says so?” question needs also to be urgently addressed, and at long last, relegated to the garbage dump of ethical discourse. The question incorrectly assumes that ethics are dictated or defined by someone. He say, I do, I do good. Overly simplistic and authoritarian.
I will grant that, in theory a perfect God who also communicated clearly with his/her creatures could be such a someone. If such a god were evident and communicative I would gladly obey their precepts and encourage others to do so. However I would do so, not simply because they issued them, but because they were indeed good, where goodness is based in reality, revealed by the real help/harm the commands caused/prevented. Again, even if God spoke clearly to us today, we should not obey if the command were to murder an entire village population or stone an adulteress (as we do see clearly commanded by god in the Bible).
The next time anyone says of an ethical assertion “Who says so?” we must stand up and say clearly: “It does not matter who says so!” and justify the position in terms of it’s help/harm effects in the real world. Authoritarian ethics belongs to the first stages of human development and we need to grow out of it or continue to commit atrocities at the whim of despots. By an ethical system based in reality, the atrocities in the Old Testament do not need defending – they were and are wrong because people got harmed and need only be condemned along with the god, or idea of god, who commanded them.
Because, as I think is evident, the world is indeed getting better and it’s getting better precisely when we are progressive and shed the violence and bigotry of our past. Our ethics are evolving and thank goodness they are!
This was a question I wrestled endlessly with as a Christian: If God’s Kingdom was announced as imminent by Jesus, and a great new religion and power was breaking into the world and spreading out we should surely expect some kind of progression of Goodness through time. But a smoke screen of Christian Apologetics (and heightened media coverage of suffering in the world) made me think that the 20th Century was the worst period in History and that, as many Christian Fundamentalists believe, the world was getting progressively worse and heading for an apocalypse.
I have since become convinced that we, and the vast majority of humanity, are living in the greatest time of comfort, security and health the world has ever seen. We must dispel our non-historical, Sunday School images of Adam and Eve happily living off choice fruit in a lush garden: life for the vast majority of people, for the bulk of history has been tough, painful brutal and short. The world simply is not “built” to feed, house and and nourish us and we find enemies and thorns at every turn. Science, Technology (especially Medicine) and the casting off of superstition are without a doubt the Father, Son and Spirit of salvation of our race in an inhospitable environment.
That is not to ignore the billions of hungry, suffering people – ever present in my mind – but to put their suffering in proportion to what their, and our, ancestors suffered and see that it is, simply, less in proportion to the world’s population. History and my own experience in the 3rd world bear this out.
It is also not to paint modernity or industrialisation and technological progress with broad, rosy strokes as wonderfully and stridently perfect. It is however to recognise that where things are going wrong in our world it is usually because of backwards thinking, fear-driven and fear-inducing politics and selfish individualism which stands unambiguously condemned by a progressive, collectivist, reality-based ethic which judges based on results i.e. on the help/harm people and policy causes.
Indeed it was a breakthrough for me to turn the question on its head: It is not from some “basis” (God, the Bible, the King) that we arrive at ethical actions but rather that ethics looks back at actions evaluating them by their end-results. We must look at the results after the actions to evaluate them ethically and not at the foundation or even the motivation. We must call an action Evil if, and only if, it does Harm to a person or person. Conversely we must call an action Good if, and only if, it Helps people. There is no a priori basis which, independently of the harm caused, can justify actions which do case harm.
By this method, it is irrelevant who ordered the villages to be massacred or why they were raped and killed. The question should not even arise in determining that the action is detestable Evil. Naturally who was responsible is important in apportioning blame but not in evaluating the action.
An equally powerful breakthrough for me was in realising that Inaction as well as Action can and must be evaluated ethically. We can harm people by our inaction just as much as by our action. It is not excusable to stand by as someone is raped with the shrug: It’s not me doing it? By this logic the God of Christianity, an interventionist deity, stands utterly condemned.
One final word to the question of arbitration. The “Who says so?” question is often honestly proffered as the – perfectly legitimate – question of who will judge disputes. This is indeed something we should not be naive about: humans do often disagree on which actions are right. Who will solve the dilemmas our society raises?
Again the answer must be that nobody is a priori authorised to pronounce or define rightness without reference to reality and the help/harm inherent to the case at hand. A judge’s function is precisely to weigh the situation, determine who is being harmed (or not helped) and NOT to import rightness into a situation where none is to be found. Judges, and we need judges, are those individuals found best able to evaluate help/harm in any given situation. Such persons do not “Lord over” us with their decisions but reveal what help/harm elements each case contains.
Ethics is an objective task because it is a question of reality and yet is is performed by humans who are both subjective and objective. Humans with prejudices and blind-spots. It would be great if, given our failings, we had recourse to some Cosmic Judiciary who would resolve our disputes. But let’s face facts: if such a person/god exists, they’re keeping quiet and we need to get on with the task at hand. There are no easy answers but the basic taks, evaluating help/harm, is simple enough for a child to understand. It may even be our most basic instinct. Ethical evolution is, in some ways, the informed expansion of this instinct to more than ourselves and our own kith and kin and outwards to all of humanity.
 Fortunately these atrocities play no role in most forms of Christianity. It is fortunate that the two sections of the Judeo-Christian library are officially called “Old” and “New” as it allows Christian thought and action to move on from some of the savagery of the past.
 This is certainly not to say that the end justifies the means but rather that the means is judged by all it’s effects from beginning to end. If the end is good but the means caused harm then in that proportion the action was evil.
 Interestingly the word “evil” does indeed have meaning outside of religion and apart from God. The very word used in the Hebrew Bible for Evil (rah) means causing pain or harm. Even, get this, God admits to causing evil (rah, harm) in Isaiah 45. Ironically in this context it is the biblical fundamentalist who must call evil “good” (and annihilate any hope of ethical discourse) because God only does “good”.