From The Peaceable Kingdom
Living Amid Fragments: The Insufficiency of Ethics
One of the ironies of the current situation is that the attempt to deny that ethics responds to the peculiarity of our current social and historic situation only makes us more subject to that situation. We are told we live in a morally bankrupt age. People think what was at one time unthinkable; indeed they do what was once unthinkable. We experience our world as so morally chaotic that we now feel our only alternative is for each person “to choose,” if not create, the standards by which they will live.
As pervasive as this feeling is, it is unclear exactly why we feel we are morally at sea. No time or society has ever been free of moral ambiguity. Why should we feel that some decisive change has occurred in our own time? Indeed are we sure our values have changed, or is it their institutional settings? For example, we may still value the family, but may now have quite a different understanding of what we mean by “the family.” Simply quoting divorce statistics does not suffice to show that we are morally confused about, or no longer value, the family. Such statistics may be an indication that people have found the traditional commitments of marriage merely overzealous. Perhaps the moral force of marriage can be sustained in other settings; for example, maybe there is no inherent incompatibility between marriage and sex with more than one person.
I suspect that the experience of the world as morally adrift has a more profound source than the mere observation that people are permitted to do what was once unthinkable. Our disquiet about morality more likely arises from within us. Even though we feel strongly about abortion, divorce, dishonesty, and so on, we are not sure why we feel as we do. And the less sure we are of the reasons for our beliefs, the more dogmatically we hold to them as our only still point in a morally chaotic world. Ironically, our dogmatism only masks our more profound doubt, for although we hold certain moral convictions adamantly, we secretly suspect that we believe what we do because we have been conditioned. We hold certain beliefs as if they are unconditioned, yet are impressed with the knowledge that all beliefs are the result of environment, and thus at least potentially arbitrary. That very acknowledgment seems then to reduce all moral disagreements to subjective opinions about which there can be no argument.
This lurking suspicion that we really have no firm grounds for our beliefs makes us all the more unwilling to expose what we think to critical scrutiny. We thus take refuge among others who think as we do, hoping sheer numbers will protect us from the knowledge of our uncertainty. Or sometimes we suppose that if we think deeply and critically about our moral convictions, we will be able to supply adequate justification for what we believe. In both cases we assume that “ethics” must be able to provide the means for preventing our world from falling into a deeper moral chaos.
Underlying such a view or morality is the presupposition that we are required by our modern predicament to make up our “own minds” about what is good and bad. Indeed, those who do so with determination are seen as morally exemplary because they act autonomously rather than uncritically accept convention. But the very notion we are “choosing” or “making up” our morality contains the seeds of its own destruction, for moral authenticity seems to require that morality be not a matter of one’s own shaping, but something that shapes one. We do not create moral values, principles, virtues; rather they constitute a life for us to appropriate. The very idea that we choose what is valuable undermines our confidence in its worth.
In many ways the current popularity that “ethics” enjoys is odd, for most people most of the time would prefer not to have to think about what is the right or wrong thing to do. They simply want to get on with the living of their lives: to fall in love, raise families, have satisfying professions, support decent and worthwhile institutions.
Certainly there is something correct in our feeling that we are required to think too much about “ethics” today. However, it is not that we are required to think – every society regardless of its “ethics” develops some forms of critical reflection about how best to act. Rather it is what we are required to think about. Contemporary ethics concentrates on moral quandaries: Should we lie to protect a friend? Is withholding the complete truth a form of lying? Must we tell a dying person he or she is dying? And so on. It thus appears that “ethics” is primarily concerned with ambiguous situations and hard decisions. Such a concentration on “quandaries” obscures the fact that they make sense only in the light of convictions that tell us who we are. Our most important moral convictions are like the air we breathe: we never notice them because our life depends on them. For example, our concern with lying derives from the conviction that we should be truthful. Behind our current feeling of chaos lies the fact that very “air we breathe” is being questioned. I suspect that it is not that we have no moral guides, but that we have too many. As Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested, our problem is that we live amid fragments of past moralities each, with good reasons, competing for our loyalty. In order to understand the implications of this he asks us to:
Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environment disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books, and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry, and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory, and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
In such a culture men would use expressions such as “neutrino,” “mass,” “specific gravity,” “atomic weight” in systematic and often interrelated ways which would resemble in lesser or greater degrees the ways in which such expressions had been used in earlier times before scientific knowledge had been so largely lost. But many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of these expressions would have been lost and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in their application which would appear very surprising to us. What would appear to be rival and competing premises for which no further argument could be given would abound.
MacIntyre contends that in respect to its moral language the actual world we inhabit is very similar to the gravely disordered state of natural science in his imaginary world. “What we possess are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” MacIntyre points out that the limit of this analogy between our world and his imaginary one is that we have no record of a similar catastrophe that has left our moral world so fragmented. All we have are its effects.
If MacIntyre is correct we live in a precarious situation. Life in a world of moral fragments is always on the edge of violence, since there are no means to ensure that moral argument in itself can resolve our moral conflicts. No wonder we hunger for absolutes in such a world, for we rightly desire peace in ourselves and in our relations with one another. Granted the world has always been violent, but when our own civilization seems to lack the means to secure peace within itself we seem hopelessly lost.
Moreover the fragmentation of our world is not only “out there,” but it is in our own souls. Amid fragments it is extremely hard to maintain our moral identity. We feel pulled in different directions by our various roles and convictions, unsure whether there is or can be any coherence to our lives. We become divided selves, more easily tempted to violence since, being unsure of ourselves, we are easily threatened by any challenge that might rob us of what little sense of self we have achieved.
Lacking any habits or institutions sufficient to sustain an ethos of honor, we become cynical. By suspecting all, by assuming that behind every cause lies self-interest and behind every act of charity a psychological payoff, we hope to protect ourselves from being misused or lost. Yet cynicism inevitably proves too corrosive. Its acid finally poisons the self, leaving no basis for self-respect because it renders all activities unworthy of our moral commitment.
In such a world the emphasis of Christian ethics on the significance of the qualifier “Christian” appears to many to capitulate to the chaos. We need instead, they say, to reformulate a universal morality that is able to bring order to our fragmentary world, securing peace between and in ourselves. Yet such universality will not come if Christians fail to take seriously their particularistic convictions. We Christians who, as I hope to show, are inextricably committed to a peaceable world, believe that peace is possible only as we learn to acknowledge and serve the Lord of this world, who has willed to be known through a very definite and concrete history. Therefore, Christian ethics holds to the importance of its qualifier, because the peace Christians embody, and which they offer to the world, is based on a kingdom that has become present in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
But faithfulness to such particularities strikes most as far too unreliable, and they continue the quest for a universal ethic that can insure certainty, if not peacefulness. I wish to claim, however, that such a quest only makes us more susceptible to violence. I must now try to show why such is the case.