Thursday, 4 August 2011

Ethics -- Limit of the Christian paradigm

Consider these two verses from the Bible.

1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

2. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well.

These two sentences sum up in my opinion the great contribution of Christianity to Western ethics. They sound like two separate ideas, but they are very closely linked.

"Turn your other cheek," which I shall abbreviate to the TOC principle, is another way of saying that force does not equate to moral legitimacy. (This is the opposite of the Nietzschean position of "might makes right" which I discussed in the last entry). And it is right, for the simple reason that if you're using force on another person, then you're simply doing to him/her what s/he could have done to you if s/he had greater force him/herself; and if, in his/her position, you would register the situation to be 'unpleasant' or 'bad' or 'evil', then s/he will do the same when s/he is the victim. So by exerting force, you are not removing the 'bad,' you are simply standing on the other side of it. If you want to do something good rather than bad, then you have to find a way of settling your differences which does not involve force. (Once again, this does not invalidate Nietzsche's statement, it simply offers an alternative to it; because it presupposes that your opponent is your equal, which is not necessarily the case, and certainly not according to Nietzsche).

This is why the verse "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is connected to the TOC. Because both are based on the idea of an equality between two subjects, and on the need to accommodate differences in a way that is correspondingly equal to both sides, rather than unbalanced in favour of one or the other.

Just to be clear, this is not a principle that originates from Christianity. Aristotle already promoted the idea of justice as equality/equivalence in the Nicomachean Ethics, to mention but one prominent example. But I shall refer to the TOC and similar principles as representatives specifically of the Christian ethic, even if Christian doctrine and history aren't always in total harmony with them, because Christianity is responsible for crystallising them in the Western subconscious and giving them primacy. In other words, they did more to popularise and spread these concepts than anyone else. (For similar reasons, I referred to the "might makes right" principle as Nietzschean in the last article, even as I insisted that Nietzsche's actual ethics were more complex).

Even if you do not accept the idea that all humans are equal (and indeed it can only be accepted in principle, because in practice people are defined by their very differences, which are also inequalities), the Christian principle remains more than just valid - it is utterly inescapable. Atheists like to indulge in negation here, but there's no getting round the ethical preeminence of the Christian principle. This is why.

The discipline of ethics is informed by the question of how things *ought* to be. In other words, it relies on a projection. The opposite of this is how we think that things *must* be, and indeed are. The latter state of things is called determinism. (The opposition of personal projections versus determinism also gives rise to the problem of free will, which I shall not discuss here).

It is possible to favour determinism over projection (Dionysus over Apollo); and this possibility allows for the Nietzschean position, where power is favoured over morality. But as we have seen, this is not an ethical choice at all. Indeed it is *not a choice,* precisely because it is deterministic, and therefore it cannot be a projection (a choice implies a projection). Even just considering the question of 'how things must be,' or trying to understand or calculate it, is already an act of projection, and is therefore already an ethical act. This convoluted problem led us to the conclusion of our first entry, when we said that the two poles cannot exist separate from each other, and indeed both ethics and determinism coexist in us without our being able to settle on either. On, in and with this duality is formed our conscience. (And this is why Apollo and Dionysus are my choice of gods over those offered by monotheism, but that's a different story).

But as long as we're making an ethical choice or decision, it will always harken back to the Christian paradigm. We can define this either as the "Do unto others" or as the TOC, it doesn't matter - both go back to pretty much the same idea. And this idea can be expressed as follows:

Nature red in tooth and claw makes us fight. It makes conflict part of our necessary behaviour. We overpower the weaker members of our species (or other species) in our struggle for resources as part of the process of evolution. Therefore fighting is an expression of natural laws. And since nature is just another word for determinism, seen how it is just a chain of cause-and-consequence events with no *projection* in it anywhere, then the only way of making a choice which is not deterministic when faced with the possibility of conflict is by *not fighting.* Now an ethical choice is, by definition, a choice which is not deterministic. Therefore the only truly ethical choice faced to a situation of conflict is not fighting.

If you didn't fully understand the above paragraph, I invite you to read it again: in my opinion it is crucial to all moral systems and it is at the heart of Christian ethics. (This has nothing to do with Christianity as a religion; as I said, I'm using the term for convenience, but the ethical paradigm itself doesn't require the details of Christian history, theology or cosmology to be true (or not); it holds even without all of these things. Indeed it holds even if there is no God, simply by its own internal congruence. You cannot do without the Christian principle).

By choosing not to fight, you are assuming onto yourself the suffering that will necessarily result from the use of force (the alternative is to use force yourself and impose that suffering on the other). If you assume, accept, withstand the pain that the other would have to feel, you are undergoing the choice that Christ made on the cross. You are assuming onto yourself the pain of others. By doing this, though the suffering still subsists, the evil does not - because it is no longer a 'necessary' suffering, but one that is chosen with consciousness. In other words, it is no longer deterministic; it is congruent with your projection, and therefore the situation is 'ethical.' You have annihilated the 'bad' aspect of the scenario that one of the two participants in the conflict would have had to experience, if it had been resolved by a mutual use of force. You have truly done the good thing.

But, and here's the rub - even as this principle is inescapable, it is not exhaustive. Indeed there is a point at which this principle dies out, no longer becoming functional or applicable, and we shall now look at where this point is exactly. This is, really, the entire subject of this post (and it took me more than half the text to get there, so forgive me).

Something surprising in our philosophical tradition, at least in my experience, is how rarely people have acknowledged the proportional aspect of ethics - by this I mean that it is valid in different ways at different scales. Perhaps seduced by the (typical) Apollonian unitary dream, most of the writers I've read work under the assumption that what is right for one person will be right for ten people, and also for the whole of society. Plato is especially guilty of this, as he projects in the Republic a whole ideal society working in the same way as one ideally virtuous individual - and he seems to think this congruence makes his theory particularly full of merit. Indeed, this is the common idea behind an ethical principle: that it should always be true, no matter what. (This is the trap awaiting all proselytes of Apollo... though there are no ethics without Apollo, on the other hand if you follow him too far, he will lead you to this flattening out of differences and these universal generalisations which remove the practical uses of ethics in the first place).

In reality, ethics are every bit as relative as space and time. The great difficulty when it comes to morality is understanding how it changes when the variables of a situation, and the number of people involved in such a situation, change. I don't think a law can be found that solves this problem (for reasons that I may or may not expound on in a third post in this series). But the relativity of ethics is unquestionable, and it finds an excellent expression in the problem of war. If you transpose an argument from between two people to between two nations (or vice versa), you will see that the parallel does not hold when looking for solutions, simply because the responsibilities involved are different, as are the means of interaction. The fact that it may be right, for instance, for one of the men to solve it by punching the other in the face, doesn't mean that one of the nations is entitled to declare war; because in this case the result wouldn't be just a bruised cheek, but people actually dying. Conversely, if it's wrong for one of the men to solve the dispute by killing the other, it doesn't follow that it's wrong for one of the nations to declare war; because the nation losing the war isn't "killed" as a nation, though it may be impoverished.

The parallels between individuals and nations simply do not carry over. The same is true for the rapport between individuals and smaller groups of people, or between city-states and nations.

One film that illuminates this relativity wonderfully is Seven Samurai, one of the greatest movies ever made (if not the greatest). It tells of a village recruiting Samurais to defend themselves against a band of brigands - a small-scale war which reproduces, in its epic three-plus hours of sword-clashing and dialogue, the entire spectrum of ethical choices from those of the lone individual to society's as a whole, and the way they interact and clash and come together in the same historical moment. It was the first work of art that convinced me that, for all of my extreme pacifism, war can indeed be right in certain circumstances.

Seven Samurai

It should be noted that questions of scale and measure also come into play when considering not just the relation between two opposing agents, but also the potential consequences of their actions. What do I mean by this? I mentioned that the only ethical choice when presented with a conflict is *not fighting,* but that is under the condition that the consequences of the conflict will be equal for both the participants (in the same way that it presupposes that they be equal as human beings). But if you're engaged in a dispute with someone and you know that if you lose, you get killed, while if your adversary loses, he is only deprived of his car, then of course you would be justified in exerting force to solve the conflict. This is an example of the limits of ethical principles - while they're universal on paper, the 'equality between subjects' that they necessitate is almost never actualised in the real world. Ethical principles are an Apollonian projection, and Apollo is always a fiction. This is why there is no 'ultimate morality' of the type that religious people so often call for.

Suppose, then, that you postulated a scale for ethics. The ethics that apply to only one individual are level one. For two to five individuals it's level two. For six to thirty individuals it's level three. And so on. (These numbers are hypothetical - the actual ratios cannot be determined numerically, or if such a thing is possible, I have no bloody clue how). Morality changes and has different rules depending on which 'level' you're at.

The great limit of Christian ethics, then, is that *they only apply to level one.* Christian ethics are inescapable as individual ethics. As long as you're alone, they apply, and are in fact impossible to confute. There is no other choice you can take that is right, but the choice of Christ. But as soon as you enter a situation involving a larger group, they fail to apply. For instance, if you marry and have children, and an individual comes over and starts harming your wife and/or kids, you are not only justified but compelled to stop him, by means of violence if necessary. This seems intuitively obvious, and it is easy to explain by our principles, too: by applying the TOC on your wife and kids, you allow the suffering to subsist on someone who cannot or does not assume it - and therefore the 'evil' remains. (Unless the wife and kids themselves ask you not to intervene - in which case they are assuming individually the TOC, but while this could be true of your wife, it cannot apply to children). And so you *must* fight. Fighting is the right thing to do, and turning the other cheek is the wrong one. The Christian paradigm fails.

This does not delete the contribution of Christianity to our ethical systems. Not at all. But it does put it into perspective. The ethical system proposed by Jesus Christ is individual, not collective. Individual and collective ethical systems are two different things, and Christ has nothing to say or teach on the latter. It would not have been the right thing to do, for instance, if Churchill and Roosevelt had applied the TOC at the national level when faced with Adolf Hitler. Despite my own loathing of violence, an ethical system claiming that violence is always evil is simply not adequately nuanced - and therefore flawed. It is, at best, an Apollonian fiction.

The conclusion that I'm driving at is similar to the one with Nietzsche in the previous blog post. I'm not making an absolute conclusion either way. I'm not saying "the Christian principle is wrong" (or right). I'm saying we need it, and we need to study it and learn (from) it, but no more than we also need opposing ethical systems - including the (apparently incompatible) Nietzschean one. If we are to face the world, with its infinity of different situations and challenges, then we need an equally flexible moral understanding of it. "Flexible" doesn't mean that we can do whatever feels most convenient according to the situation. It means that it accounts for both the Apollonian and Dionysian poles in our psyche, both ideal and compromise, both ethics and power, both purity and experience, both what ought to be and what must be. We must know how to stand firm at the right times, and how to compromise at others. Neither the light nor the darkness are the answer to anything, for both leave us blind; it is only in the balance between the two that the human being is realised.


Mory Buckman said...

Your logic is flawed from the start. Just because ethics are separate from determinism does not mean that the ethical choice will be whatever choice negates determinism. If we extended that logic to its natural conclusion, we'd find that in any circumstance the most ethical possible action is suicide, being the ultimate negation of the survival instinct. If there is no legitimate reason or external motivation for suicide, that just makes the suicide more ethical in this absurdist line of thought, because it is spitting in the face of everything that humans are expected to be doing.

The Judge said...

A very clever counter. :) I have two objections to what you say.

1.) Gratuitious suicide is not necessarily anti-deterministic. To commit suicide is an act, while to be alive is a condition (suicide is something that you do, alive is something that you are). It would make more sense if you opposed an act *involving* survival to an act involving suicide. For instance, when faced with the choice between fleeing from battle and staying to die, many would argue that suicide is the most ethical choice here (from the Spartans at the Thermopylae to the Kamikaze pilots, though in reality this depends on the specific nature of the war and the situation).

2.) You're imagining the relationship between determinism and ethics to be specular. Like a deterministic act had its own anti-act in the world of ethics. I don't think this is necessarily the case: the dialectical opposite of "fighting" is "losing the fight," while someone who chooses to "not fight" is refusing to engage with (or enter) the dialectic in the first place. In this sense, ethics involves the rejection of the whole deterministic dialectic, not just choosing the negative pole.

(Still, in both the above points, suicide IS the more ethical choice in any situation in which suicide is part of a projection, whereas 'life' is not. Ethics always involve a projection (aiming towards a fictional ideal), and it stands in opposition to anything that happens free from said projections).

In addition to this, the reasoning that you call "absurdist" is actually taken very seriously by philosophers. Camus said that the only important question in philosophy is "why don't we commit suicide?" and Moravia, in his novel "Disobedience," tells exactly the story which you're imagining: a young man who starts killing himself gradually to escape determinism.