From The Peaceable Kingdom
Ethics and the Demand for Absolutes
All ethical reflection occurs relative to a particular time and place. Not only do ethical problems change from one time to the next, but the very nature and structure of ethics is determined by the particularities of a community’s history and convictions. From this perspective the notion of “ethics” is misleading, since it seems to suggest that “ethics” is an identifiable discipline that is constant across history. In fact, much of the burden of this book will be to suggest that ethics always requires an adjective or qualifier – such as, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, existentialist, pragmatic, utilitarian, humanist, medieval, modern – in order to denote the social and historical character of ethics as a discipline. This is not to suggest that ethics does not address an identifiable set of relatively constant questions – the nature of the good or right, freedom and the nature of human behavior, the place and status of rules and virtues – but any response to these questions necessarily draws on the particular convictions of historic communities to whom such questions may have significantly different meanings.
That ethics is an activity relative to particular times, places, and communities may seem obvious, but it is also easily forgotten and its significance ignored. We each feel a powerful desire to claim that the ethic that guides us is free from historical relativity and/or arbitrariness. After all, morality often deals with matters that entail sacrifices by ourselves and others, and we think such sacrifices can only be justified on the basis of unchanging principles.
Thus it is often thought that one of the primary tasks of ethics is to show how morality is grounded in unchangeable principles and convictions. Many assume, moreover, that the best way to ensure the unchangeableness of our principles is to claim that they are sanctioned by God. We can be sure of our principles if they can be shown to rely upon God’s will. Because of this, some have claimed that if God does not exist everything is morally permissible. Though such a claim belies the complexity of the relation of religious convictions to morality, many believers and unbelievers alike seem to think that if God does not in some manner underwrite the absoluteness of our moral system we will not be able to say what is wrong with murder, or lying, or stealing, etc.
As a Christian ethicist I am often asked, “Aren’t there any absolutes anymore? “ The questioners tend to assume that if the answer is, “no,” then ethics has simply ceased to exist. They assume this even though it is by no means clear to what their term “absolute” applies – to values, or rules, or convictions – or even if such absolutes have anything to do with Christian beliefs and practices.
To persons who hold this view, my claim that ethics always requires a qualifier seems an abdication of responsibility. They see the task of the ethicist in our time as that of reasserting the continued viability to those absolute norms that are not dependent upon a particular people’s history, in order to sustain the moral character of our way of life. I maintain that such a view of ethics is radically misconceived, and particularly so for ethics done in a Christian context. But before suggesting why that is the case, we must try to understand the reasons behind the hunger for absolutes in our time.