In this post I’d like to broadly consider ethics: why are ethics important, and assuming they are, what is required for ethical living?
Perhaps the most fundamental question regarding ethics is:
What is morality?
If morality can be determined then we can, theoretically, establish responsible ethics.
One of the foremost proposals for morality is proposed by evolutionary psychology. According to evolutionary psychology, “disgust” is directly related to morality. Morality, however, is only one of three functions of disgust: (1) pathogen disgust that keeps people from ingesting poisons, (2) sexual disgust that helps people avoid bad reproductive partners (for example, incest), and (3) moral disgust that encourages people to conform to social norms like not stealing.
So, is this a proper representation of morality?
“Morals,” evolutionary psychology’s theory argues, are social constructions, meaning they are created, guided, and maintained by the dominant population. That is a problematic way to view morals, even if it is how morals are often enacted.
For example, evolutionary psychologists, based on their model, would have to index lynchings that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries as moral because they were supported by the dominant population at the time. Furthermore, people of color must be viewed as fundamentally immoral during this time based on the same reasoning. Indeed, according to this position, only after the dominant population found lynchings disgusting did lynching become morally wrong.
Evolutionary psychology affirms a system that functions for one, predominant goal: gene perpetuation. If one’s genes continue into the next generation then success is obtained. Moral claims, then, surround the idea of survival.
Q: How does one survive?
A: By concurring with the dominant population.
Thus, humans are created with disgust, which often includes disgust for certain bodies, in order to survive society. No other criteria is required.
For Christians, this capricious description of morality is outrageous, although some contemporary expressions of Christian morality resemble it. Morality is not determined by any particular person or population, especially the dominant population.
Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus emphasized how God’s love bends toward the most vulnerable, which is in direct opposition to evolutionary psychology’s model.
On one occasion, Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is. The list of laws and commandments was quite extensive, making it difficult for the people to completely honor and follow their faith commitment. Jesus’ answer was concise and clear:
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22)
Ethics, in other words, are grounded in love for God and neighbors. The dominant population’s pronouncements and determinations are not included or even considered. In fact, the dominant population is typically rebuked within Jesus’ model because people focused on supremacy typically denounce God and oppress their minority neighbors.
Interestingly, Jesus’ ethics are also uninterested in survival, as though living well in evil systems somehow constitutes the purpose of Christianity. Jesus readily admitted to his followers that adopting his ethic is dangerous, even life-threatening. People, he confessed, would reject his disciples and persecute them, and when (not if) persecuted, his disciples were encouraged to pray for rather than war against the persecutors.
Is God required?
A reoccurring question in ethics asks: is a “God,” or higher power of some sort, required for ethics?
The question is complex and impossible to fully unpack here; nevertheless, on the most basic level, the question asks for a center or foundation to ethics.
Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty argues that ethics, specifically human rights, can hold together through “sentimental education,” believing that sentimentality is universal and can guide proper action. “God,” in other words, is unnecessary and unwanted. It is important to note that pragmatism does not make universal truth claims; instead, pragmatism is only concerned with what works in each given context rather than what is right.
He concludes by saying that proper sentimentality can only be cultivated when an individual has leisure time to adequately contemplate the world.
Rorty’s theory raises three questions:
1 Are populations that are not privileged with leisure time therefore immoral (unsentimental) and incapable of supporting human rights?
2 What exactly is guiding Rorty’s context-informed vision of justice?
3 Why should we assume that people are naturally sentimental toward justice?
Like evolutionary psychology, if morality is pragmatic, only existing as an organizing mechanism for society that is controlled by the dominant population, then we are a hopeless people indeed.
Sand and Rock
Jesus specifically addresses this point when he explains how the wise build their houses on a rock while the foolish build on sand.
When difficult ethical situations arise, what will guide one’s decision?
Protecting the majority’s power?
S h i f t i n g…
S a n d…
Jesus said to love God and neighbor.
Jesus said to love enemies.
Jesus said to welcome children.
Jesus said not to worry about your life, what you will eat or drink.
Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, merciful, and those persecuted because of righteousness.
Ethics seems to require a rock-foundation of some sort in order to exist, otherwise ethics are arbitrary.
Yet, it would be improper to conclude without identifying the greatest threat to ethical morality: Christians with competing visions of God.
Is God fundamentally JUDGE or LOVE?
Shifting, pragmatic ethics can adjust, but Christians who claim that some people suffer or get what they deserve as a result of God’s judgment are usually resolute.
But love, a JUDGE-rock Christian declares, requires justice!
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
JUDGE-rock Christians are no better than shifting-sand-ethicists, because what is “Godly” justice and who gets to determine that? We must remember that slavery was supported and lynchings conducted by judgmental Christians.
But isn’t the Good News that we do not get what we deserve because of Jesus? Do we really want fair judgment from God?
Love God, Love Neighbor: All the laws of the prophets hang on these two commandments.
LOVE-rock ethics are the only ethics that do not shift.
So what is the source of our ethics?
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.