Trying to Establish a Code of Ethics
Can one arrive at an ethical code of conduct without resorting to some higher standard, such as God or gods, myth or tradition? And will such a code be rational and universal, or will it simply be arbitrary?
Let me lay my cards face up. If there is no God, then no code of ethics can be rationally justified; any code or no code is of equal value. No one course of action can be described as any better than any other. Mother Teresa's concern for the poor of India was no more or less moral than Hitler's Nazism -- if there is no God.
The argument to be presented in this section could be labeled the Moral Argument for the existence of God. Or, it might be summarized with the statement: "What sort of a universe do you want to live in, anyhow?"
1. Morals by consent
Perhaps one of the most common ways of establishing a moral code, at least in a democracy, is the same way that anything is done in a democracy. If the consensus of the community is that a given behavior is acceptable, then it becomes acceptable. If the consensus of the community is that a given behavior is unacceptable, then it becomes unacceptable. For example, since more than fifty percent of the people believe abortion is entirely a woman's free choice, abortion is available on demand. Most people don't believe that 55 is a fast enough speed limit. To discover what the limit really is, travel any freeway. Even the police, by society given the mantle to enforce the laws, advise that the driver maintain a speed in conformity with "the flow of traffic".
Whatever one's view of ethics, the practical outworking in democracies follows the above pattern. Yet few theoreticians in ethics would seriously advise that such is a workable way of determining right and wrong. It is simple enough to show the fallacy of morals by consent with atrocious examples from history where a consensus existed for the most vile crimes against humanity. The most often raised examples are, of course, the treatment of Jews in Hitler's Germany, Christendom's attitude toward Jews throughout history, or the treatment of blacks and Native Americans in America. All these examples serve to show that consensus may exist for despicable things. While some may object that driving over the speed limit is not the same level of immorality as the gas chambers, the underlying philosophical principle which allows either activity is identical.
Perhaps the true level of idiocy involved in morality by consensus can be demonstrated by turning to science. Would it be reasonable to determine the validity of a given scientific theory on the basis of a vote? "How many of you think the world is flat? How many think it is round?"
The lunacy of putting science to a vote is made clear by the simple notion that there is an objective reality. The vote of a group will make no difference. A legislature may, at any time, pass a bill proclaiming "the abolition of the law of gravity, and the end to its oppression of mankind forever." However, if any of those legislators attempts to walk on air, he will quickly discover that gravity has ignored his legislation.
In the final analysis, it is very unlikely that anyone seriously believes questions of right and wrong should be put to a vote. But that leaves the problem: how do we arrive at ethical standards? Are there any ethical standards equivalent to the law of gravity? That is, are ethics as objectively real as a piece of chalk, or are they simply a matter of taste, like one's decision about the value of Brussels Sprouts?
2. Let's Do What's Best For Others
This principle might be defined as the "golden rule" school of ethics. This means, that every activity, every action, whether by an individual or by a group, should be judged based on whether this is best for a given individual, or for a given group. "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Or, as it is rendered in writings other than Christian: "Don't do to others what you wouldn't want them to do to you."
This of course is a valid approach, and results in very fine ethical standards. There is one fundamental problem though, and that is presuppositional. What, exactly, is the value of a human being? Why should it concern me what happens to another person more than to an animal? Or a rock? Sure, I might not want a particular bad thing to happen to me, but why should that constrain me from making it happen to someone else?
What is a human being? The product of random chance -- the same random chance which produced slugs and rocks. In the history of the universe, according to current theory, human beings have been around for an infinitesimally tiny fraction, and occupy an incredibly minute corner of it. Of what possible significance are the actions of any one member or group of members of our species? If the human race destroys itself in a thermonuclear holocaust, what will it matter to the universe?
Of what value is a human being? Why? Justify your answer. Convince the Universe that it matters.
A man said to the Universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
"A sense of obligation." [Stephen Crane]
If the existence of the whole species is of no more significance than a nest of germs on a dust mote, then why do we concern ourselves with ethics at all? My existence, what I do or don't do, my ultimate non-existence are matters of concern to me, perhaps, but why that should be I don't know. I am purposeless: an accident.
We are placed in the condition of the child that learns it was merely an accident, unplanned and unwanted.
It is ego shattering.
3. The Analogy of Nature
Without resort to a deity, we are left with only one method of governing ourselves -- if we care to bother -- and that is to follow the analogy of nature: survival of the fittest. On a pan-individual scale, this is pretty much the way we operate now, anyhow. Nations generally function on the basis of their perceived self-interest. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to point to any action, by any nation, that was not done based on perceived self-interest. This is not to say that the nation might not be mistaken in its notion of self-interest; that is why the qualifier of "perceived" is there.
All other life forms on Earth seem to be governed only by the principle of "survival of the fittest." The strongest and smartest should rule -- and do rule. The weak and stupid should die -- and do die. Early capitalism eagerly accepted this Darwinian principle, translating it into the form we now call "social darwinism". Hitler followed this same principle to the ultimate degree.
We are repulsed at the idea of Hitler, but that is because we are encumbered with the relics of our Judeo-Christian ethics which infuse our society. The universe being what it is (according to modern theory), there is no objective reason, aside from a sentimental comfortableness, for desiring to maintain the fiction of ethical absolutes.
In any society, anarchy exists until someone becomes strong enough to arbitrarily force order on things. But it should always be recognized that any ethical code is then entirely arbitrary, and it is impossible -- nonsensical even -- to maintain that any ethical system is preferable to any other -- or none at all.
4. So What Do You Want?
Only if there is a God, who has established objective standards in the same way he established the laws that govern the universe, can we reasonably expect ethics to ever be anything more than a matter of taste.
On what basis do you argue that it is wrong for a given tyrant to kill millions? "On the basis that killing is wrong" is the normal response.
But I object. On what basis do you argue that killing is wrong? Objectively, how can I, an outside observer, determine that the tyrant is in error in calling his slaughter "good", while his opposition is speaking the truth when it says his actions are actually "bad"?
On the basis of the world? Or what everyone does? Then surely the tyrant is right. Throughout history, tyrants have been killing people in various ingenious and not-so-ingenious ways; even the most decent of individuals have delighted in slaughtering one another. Animals kill one another constantly. Life itself would not be possible without death, whether it is the death of the lettuce plant which makes your salad, or the death of a cow for your hamburger. Viruses slaughter cells, and one celled organisms eat each other. Life kills life constantly.
The whole world is filled with killing. So on what basis can you say that killing is wrong?!
Herodotus reports a tale associated with Alexander the Great, who, following a battle in Persia, ordered the conquered people to gather up their dead and burn the bodies. But they objected, saying, "It would be an abomination to burn the dead. Rather, let us eat them."
Later, upon conquering another people, he ordered them to gather up their dead and eat them. But they objected, saying, "It would be an abomination to eat the dead. Rather, let us burn them."
From this, Alexander concluded that morals were made up by men, and that there were no absolutes. It was simply a matter of taste.
Only if there is a God, who is actively concerned with his creatures, and who by his nature establishes what is right and wrong, can humans argue that there is an objective good and evil. The differences in what people think is good and bad is related to their ignorance of God's laws, just as the differences of opinion regarding the operation of the universe is based on ignorance of what is really going on.
Copyright © Quartz Hill School of Theology. All Rights Reserved.