If medical students enroll in an ethics course to try to determine if they should perform abortions, all they will learn after examining all theories is that some people believe such action to be justified and others do not. Ultimately, as before taking the course, the decision on how to act will lie in the medical student's personal value system acquired throughout his or her life. They will not resolve painful dilemmas" with ethical theories, but rather with their own values. (1)The system of ethics developed in this paper differs in two basic respects from the mainstream of philosophical and theological thought. It also represents a departure from the way I have done ethics in my previous writings prior to about 1990. 1. I reject the understanding of ethics that assumes that moral beliefs can be authenticated independently of the history and culture that produced them. I will call the discarded view the principles approach to ethics. 2. I reject the notion that we can claim universal validity and objective truth for any particular version of ethical beliefs. I will call this the objectivist approach to ethics. In both cases true and truth are defined as correspondence to reality. I do not throw out principles entirely. I make extensive use of them. I do not reject the notion of an objective order of reality and values to which true statements may correspond. I believe that we live in a value-impregnated environment that has a structure independent of us to which experience provides clues that reason can interpret in systems of belief. (2) But I do not believe we can know for sure whether our moral and religious beliefs correspond with reality. The usual procedure is for individual interpreters and religious communities to claim universality and objectivity for what they themselves believe. Am I far from the truth is saying that right and wrong for individuals and communities are identical with what they presently believe? I do not know of philosophers or theologians who maintain that a moral system other than their own is actually the true one. The bolder thinkers simply declare contrary beliefs to be in error. Those who have been infected with milder forms of relativism than mine opt for a pluralism that maintains that while they may not have the whole of reality in their grasp, they have a valid perspective on it. Or they may hint that all of us may have bits of the truth but that they have the larger pieces, the more adequate view. The problem is that they cannot say with certainty just how accurate their perspective on the whole is or state exactly which pieces are true and which pieces are false. If they could, they would have no need to embrace relativism of any sort. They could just say plainly what was objectively true. Hence, they are precariously balanced between absolutist objectivism and a thoroughgoing relativism that is too unstable to be of much good, apart from the comforting assurance it provides.
I am a skeptic and a relativist. I believe that all large-scale claims about the nature of thing and the order of values rooted in objective reality are relative to the time and place of the interpreter (culture or individual) and that we can never know with certainty whether our beliefs correspond with the independently-existing order of things or not. After applying the rational tests of logical consistency and adequacy to evidence, I embrace a pragmatism that relies on satisfying workability in practice rather than objective certainty about theories of existence and value. I believe that it is literally true that we walk by faith and not by sight. This way of thinking about ethics can provide strong convictions and lead to actions that express them. It can generate and sustain moral passion and afford us as much courage in adversity as any alternative. We can assert as vigorously as we need to that views contrary to ours are wrong from our perspective and act accordingly. We can oppose with force practices that are so reprehensible that a milder response is inadequate. Ideally this orientation will combine passionate commitment to a vision with humility of outlook. We can debate with others about the grounds for knowing whether certain practices are right or wrong, while acknowledging that we have no way of knowing for sure which alternatives are in harmony with the objective order of reality and value that exists independently of our belief.
For most of my professional life I did ethics by seeking to discover principles that were objectively true and therefore valid for everyone. Most ethicists from the time of Plato and Aristotle in the Western tradition have done so. This approach sets forth the sources and norms of right conduct. (3) Philosophers make use of reason and experience. Christian thinkers consult Scripture and tradition as the primary sources of insight, and most give attention to the relationship between philosophical and theological approaches to ethics. (4) Having settled the authority question, ethicists proceed to work out the ends and obligations that properly belong to human beings as selves in the world or as believers in the church. Recently distinctions have been made between deontological and teleological forms of ethics. (5) Each thinker states a preference for one or some combination of these types and gives the reasons for doing so. Some search for a third alternative that might incorporate or make use of the other two. Theologians, if they take philosophy, into account, adopt a procedure for relating biblical ethics to these philosophical analyses and state what is distinctive about the Christian way of thinking about right and wrong. Philosophers and theologians alike may or may not refer to natural law as a source of moral wisdom to which all human beings can appeal. Christian thinkers will likely speak of the relation of law and gospel, while indicating the role of specific sets of moral injunctions such as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. They may develop the ethics of the Kingdom of God as specified by Jesus and nearly always give a lot of attention to love of neighbor as the supreme virtue. Liberal thinkers need a way of dealing with the embarrassing portions of Scripture such as the acceptance of slavery, the subordination of women, and other practices that seem to contradict the nobler themes of the biblical outlook. In some such fashion here hinted at with tantalizing brevity, the many varieties of ethics current today have been spawned setting forth the guiding principles that define virtue and specify duty. In the light of these precepts one can move on to apply them to specific areas of life - sex, marriage, and the family, the economic sphere, politics and government, war and peace and so on.
The usual assumption is that the correct principles produced by this inquiry are valid for all people in all times and places. They are true whether anyone believes them to be so or not. Relativists, of course, have been around since at least the time of the Sophist Protagoras. (6) He was promptly refuted by Plato, and relativists in every subsequent generation have been pounced on with equal vigor by the successors of Plato eager to establish the universality and objectivity of moral truth in utter confidence of in their ability to do so, or at least with respect to their version of it. We all recognize that on some occasions it might be appropriate, or at least prudent, to live by the maxim implied in the saying "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Usually, however, we are more willing to consent to this advice with regard to manners, etiquette, and protocol in which a breach of social custom might cause unnecessary offense to others and embarrassment to us but would not constitute a violation of moral law. When fundamental issues of morality are at stake, the universalists and objectivists not the relativists have defined the mainstream of thought.
The principles approach proceeds as if it had no necessary dependence on any specific community of belief and practice in which people are acting in accordance with or in trespass of their functioning beliefs about right and wrong. The principles of ethics are defined by rational inquiry or by theological reflection that takes the results of these inquiries to experience and measures the practices they find in real life, declaring them to be in conformity with or in contradiction to the norms that thought has produced. Right and wrong are defined by principles grounded in the objective moral order, not by whatever a given community or individual regards as authoritative. Thinkers are, of course, aware of who they are and where they live and of the intellectual and moral traditions they have inherited and work with. However, even when they do acknowledge their location within a particular historical community and that they are thinking with its language and presuppositions, this does not usually deter them in the least from maintaining that from their vantage point they have discerned the truth that applies to all.
In the principles approach, the philosopher or theologian ideally is, in Plato's terms, "the spectator of all time and existence." This view is sometimes qualified when speaking of an erroneous view thought to reflect assumptions relative to that culture. Aristotle, for example, is condemned by some as being wrong in believing that slavery is dictated by natural law because he was blinded by assumptions common to his age. Some Christian commentators have noted that the unliberated views of Karl Barth on women reflect what we might expect from a Swiss man of his generation, but they do not typically go on to say that their own more egalitarian views may equally reflect their own cultural locale. They are just true. Usually, the views taken to be normative are thought to be exempt from the relativity that authors find in others. We are not generally advised by the ethicist who is currently speaking to beware of the possibility that what he or she is capable of believing is circumscribed by the same kind of social, cultural and historical factors that limit the unenlightened. I want to insist that all moral outlooks are shaped by the culture in which they occur, not just the erroneous ones. Not only does the thinker live in a particular culture at some given historical moment, but he/she is defined by a whole set of individual particularities - class, race, education, nationality, religion, gender, life history, and on and on. It makes a great deal of difference whether the ethicist who comments on the morality of slavery is a slaveholder or a slave or someone so far removed in time and space from the practice as to be able to render a judgment different from either. Viewing the moral order from a particular temporal-social location does not preclude the claims that result from being true. It just complicates the problem of knowing which ones are. The point is that no one can examine the objective moral order from some vantage point above and beyond all particular places, a spot that provides an unfiltered view of things as they are.
The central question for the principles approach is always what the universal principles are that define personal virtue and social justice. So each generation of thinkers looks at the system of ethics produced by history, compares and contrasts them with one another, makes a choice among them, or proceeds to add one more scheme to the tradition. The systems are generally taken as they are as self-defining, stand-alone productions of thought to be assessed by norms that are regarded as universal and objective that presumably all competent persons who are correctly instructed could come to be in possession of. Christians, of course, measure moral claims by the standards thought to be decisive for that tradition, but the virtues, duties, and ideals of life thus generated and approved are thought to be obligatory not merely for Christians but to define God's will for all people.
I am not maintaining that we are totally bound to the moral wisdom we have inherited and that it is therefore impossible in any significant way to transcend our historical relativity. This underestimates the power of human creativity and unduly limits the capacity of the imagination to produce fresh visions of ideal possibilities to which we can aspire in quest of more just and more fulfilling ways of living. Cultural consciousness changes, and the moral beliefs held by societies and their philosophers and theologians change over time. Each new stage views its own insights as having overcome the errors of the past. Slavery is out of fashion these days but a century and a half ago was defended by learned scholars and pious clergy.
I do not propose to abandon entirely the use of principles. They have an essential place in the total enterprise. However, I do wish to set this approach into the larger context in which thinking about right and wrong occurs. So doing will illuminate both the legitimacy and limits of searching for principles that point us toward the good and away from evil. The main point can be simply stated. The ethical point of view of a community is relative to time and place. The outlook of an individual within that community is conditioned by her/his unique personal identity, social location, and life history. I state no universal law or rigid determinism and assert no absolute relativity in these matters. We are not dealing with physics here but with the strange, wonderful, and baffling chemistry of the human spirit and with the astounding potentialities of free, rational beings with capacities for creatively transcending conditions and imagining new ideal possibilities for the human adventure. But to neglect the finitude and historicity of ethicists and the resulting relativity of their thought is to miss an essential ingredient in the formulation of moral beliefs.
This raises a problem. How can we declare all ethical systems to be relative to time, place, and culture and yet speak with authority about where previous generations went wrong or to declare that anything is just plain right, then, now, and always for everybody. I believe there is a way to do this, but it involves a frank recognition of relativity even while aspiring to universality. I reject the assumption that reason can produce ethical beliefs that are independent of the history and culture of the reasoner who formulates them in such a way as to merit the status of universal, objective moral truth. As an alternative I propose to set forth a view that begins with particular communities who have a history and a set of informing traditions. Human imagination over time creates myths of origin, beliefs about people, nature, and ultimate reality. Each culture evolves a code of ethics, and a collection of stories, symbols, and rituals to celebrate and perpetuate a framework of meaning and purpose that enable its members to understand and cope with the world and achieve a good life. Numerous are those who claim to have escaped from Plato's Cave to look at pure truth, goodness, and beauty. The problem is that when they return to the darkened interior, they give conflicting reports of what they found in the light of the sun. The problem is knowing who the impostors are.
The most fruitful approach for communities and individuals who engage in conversation with each other is to recite the history that led to their particular system of values. Each may give the reasons for the beliefs held and be open to new insights, while rejecting in the other what is unconvincing. However, each must forego the privilege of claiming absolute validity for her/his own perspective or of pronouncing others to be simply in error. It is permissible only to assert that the other is wrong when viewed from the preferred stance. This is better than for the contending parties to argue for and against value systems as abstracted products of thought that, although generated in history and culture, can be discussed independently of them. The usual assumption is that history and culture are like a ladder that gets us to the top of the house. Once we are there, we can dispense with the ladder, and argue for the universality and objectivity of our beliefs and values, while trying to demonstrate that the alternatives produced by other histories, cultures, or individuals are just wrong. Most moral disputes take place among contending parties who all claim to be speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Each claims universality and objectivity for its own outlook. Believing that ones own outlook is in harmony with the order of values ingredient within reality itself may give one confidence and produce good feelings. It may provide reassurance in the presence of contrary views. But claiming universality and objectivity for a point of view helps us not at all to determine what is actually right or wrong in a given situation. It contributes nothing to the process of determining the actual content of belief. I contend that this approach is not a useful way of thinking, has not worked, and is not convincing when confronted with the overpowering evidence of the relativity of moral points of view. One outlook might in fact be universally and objectively true (correspond with reality), but we have no way of demonstrating that to be the case. Hence, I am led toward a pragmatism that (1) tests beliefs by the best we know up to now and (2) by their power in practice to make the world intelligible and to achieve a fulfilling life. Put otherwise, we affirm what we cannot deny and seek for better beliefs when our presently operating scheme fails to meet the aforementioned criteria. This point of view is spelled out and defended in more detail in subsequent chapters.
Ethics understood as reflection upon moral traditions and practice will have three tasks:
Ethics can describe and interpret a given moral tradition or particular individual outlook. For the individual philosopher this means identifying the particular trajectory of thought within which he or she intends to work or modify - Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomistic, utilitarian, Kantian, Chinese, and so on. A Christian ethicist will indicate the branch of the many-sided movement that provides the starting point - Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Mennonite, or whatever. The underlying presuppositions that authorize that initial location or heritage or point of view can be uncovered and elucidated. A thorough interpretation would include an investigation of the history that produced it, seeking in the process for clues that explain its form and content. Ethicists frequently do this in varying degrees of depth and detail as a matter of course by way of setting forth the background and context for their own constructive efforts. Within this larger framework particular practices can be examined to show how they fit into the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions in which it occurs, either to exemplify or perhaps to contradict some of its features. So far the effort is not to judge but simply to understand.
Most immediately this involves evaluating a particular practice in the light of the norms of a tradition or a particular articulated individual perspective. Is abortion ever permissible? If so, under what conditions? A culture or a community, however, may be internally diverse and contain a variety of traditions and practices. Part of the task of ethics is to evaluate the many strands within the larger historical and cultural background in terms of which of them most authentically represents what is central to its core assumptions. In the 19th century the controversy over slavery centered around whether the enforced servitude of Africans was in keeping with the fundamental values of the Republic. Abolitionists argued that the fundamental values of liberty and equality demanded the end of slavery. Natural law and Scripture were also claimed by both sides as favorable to their cause. Likewise, the Bible, natural law, and the founding documents of the country were brought into play to support or reject the right of women to vote. Recently Christian feminists agonized over whether a usable past could be found in the Bible and Western history. Many appealed to neglected strands within Scripture more favorable to the equality of the sexes. Moral philosophers in every generation evaluate the legacy from the past and identify with those traditions and schools of thought that support their own rendering of the ends and duties of human beings, while rejecting the alleged errors of the past and present held by the less enlightened. This leads into the final task of ethics.
If nothing can be found in the moral legacy congenial to what the interpreter believes to be normative, a new vision must be promulgated. Usually, however, philosophers, theologians, and leaders of movements appeal to something found within the past but that has been neglected or misinterpreted. Much liberation thought of the last generation sought to recover the dissenting voices of marginalized or repressed communities. The controversy over same-sex love threatens to split the churches today. Each side appeals to the cultural, philosophical, and theological past to buttress its point of view. If favorable passages of Scripture are available, they are quoted as authoritative, while disagreeable portions of Scripture are ignored or explained away. A final resort of liberals when chapter and verse favor the opposition is to locate a vital core of truth and to find in it a mandate for responsible homosexual love. Everybody, of course, claims Jesus, whatever the issue or cause. So skillful are the contending parties in performing exegetical and hermeneutical miracles to insure Scriptural authority for contrary positions that I have concluded that the Bible is for the most part a mirror in which all find just what they need to buttress their own beliefs.
In the constant reinterpretation of received traditions old patterns of belief die and are replaced by emerging ones. No one today would be taken seriously who wanted to deny the vote to women or to justify the enslavement of Africans. Moral consciousness evolves. A century from now the condemnation of responsible same-sex love will seem as quaint, repugnant, and silly as the arguments for slavery and the denial of the vote to women seem today. Yet a century and a half ago philosophers and theologians were applauded when they argued that Scripture, natural law, common sense, and the good of society justified the ownership of some human beings by others and the restriction of women to hearth and home. The morality of sexual relations has changed profoundly in this country in the last half-century. What was once thought to be scandalous, e. g., couples living together before marriage, is now commonplace and evokes little attention.
In short, the philosophical task is to carry on the conversation with the past, either to confirm its insights or to call for abandonment of its errors and the adoption of better ways of thinking and living. That is, as a matter of fact, mostly what philosophers do. Hence, the three tasks I have outlined do not constitute a novel proposal but a description of what actually goes on. What I complain about is that although they admit their historical location, most theologians and philosophers in effect play "At last we've got it." Seldom do they admit that their own point of view is as relative to time and place as the ones they reject, even if we all agree that it may be superior and, as far as we can tell, the ideal that we must live by from now on. Let me emphasize, however, that although ethicists cannot transcend their time and place altogether, they can creatively reinterpret it. We should not prior limits on the power of the imagination to create new visions of a just and good society that ennoble the human condition. But the starting point is some particular set of traditions and practices that have a history that requires reformation.
What I decry is the Lone Ranger individualism in which everybody has to have his/her own system and argue it against others. Frequently, this goes on in scholarly circles within the larger culture but relatively isolated from it. Scholars become an insulated community who talk mainly to one another, although a few emerge now and then to serve as public intellectuals who serve the large community. Reinhold Niebuhr in a past generation and Cornell West in the present bring the resources of a learned intellect dedicated to justice into the conversation.
Implicit in what has been said is a distinction that needs to be made explicit. I refer to the difference between the history of a community with a moral tradition and the history of thought articulated in the elite intellectual traditions of the culture. The latter is part of the former, but they are not identical and sometimes have little to do with each other. The articulation and interpretation of moral belief, of course, goes on throughout the culture with varying degrees of sophistication and subtlety and with much, little, or reference to or knowledge of the Aristotles, Kants, Lockes, and Gewirths of the world. Ordinary people every day do some things in order to achieve good consequences and some things just because they are right, whatever the results, without any consciousness that they are exhibiting teleological and deontological forms of moral behavior. There is a history of changing moral consciousness in which the high intellectual tradition is not the only or even the most important influence. Sometimes the rethinking of moral standards follows or is an accommodation to the changes in outlook among majorities of citizens. (7) The relationship between the history of the world and the history of philosophy is complex. Neither a materialism that sees ideologies and values as the product of more fundamental socio-economic processes and class interests or an idealism that thinks that ideas rule the world is adequate. Ideas arise in a historical-cultural context of material conditions and competing aims and both reflect and generate changes in the culture. The philosophical tradition is not identical with or the sole source of the moral traditions of a community and of changes within it. Nor is it a mere rationalization by thought of material interests and social aims of the classes they represent, although it may be. An analysis of how and why the moral consciousness of cultures and communities evolves is beyond the scope of this essay and the competence of the essayist.
The point is that philosophers and theologians should see their primary
task as the analysis, assessment, and revision of the moral traditions
and practices of the people. Instead philosophers write their books mostly
for each other. The result is that schools of thought come and go in the
universities with little influence on the actual traditions and practices
of the masses of people. I am not ruling out the efforts of individual
philosophers to set forth their own version of moral truth. This is a perfectly
legitimate thing to do. I am one of the proud practitioners of the art.
All I am criticizing is the claim or implication that the content of their
construal is what reason as such demands. My suggestion is that they simply
say "This is the best I know up to now." Likewise, Christian theologians
can serve a useful purpose by sharing the results of their study and reflection
with the larger community of believers. I merely suggest they ought to
admit that they are offering their version of the matter and not what Christian
ethics as such requires, or, heaven forbid, what God's opinion is.
I invite comments, criticisms, evaluations, and other responses.
1. Brian Everill , Department of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine. Internet Site, June 9, 1999, at: http://www.the-scientist.lib.upenn.edu/yr1996/July/let2_960708.html.
2. My reasons for believing this are rooted in a whole network of assumptions about reality and its ultimate Ground. This outlook has been set forth in a number of books such as Science, Secularization and God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969); Process Ethics (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1984); The Passion for Equality (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987); Theological Biology (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991: and Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997). Alas, all of them prior to 1990 illustrate the principles approach to ethics that I now criticize, and not even in the last two is my present state of enlightenment much in evidence in terms of the alternative I propose here.
3. Two brief but useful introductions to the Western tradition of moral philosophy are James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), and William K. Frankena, Ethics, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973).
4. See J. Phillip Wogaman, Christian Ethics; A Historical Introduction (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1993), Jeffrey Siker, Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth-Century Portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), and two books by Edward L. Long, Jr., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), and A Survey of Recent Christian Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
5. Teleological ethics judges act solely by their consequences, while deontology denies that consequences are all that matter and specifies some other way of defining right conduct, which might or not include consequences as one consideration.
6. One of the earliest statements of relativism comes from the Sophist Protagoras, as quoted by Plato, "The way things appear to me, in that way they exist for me; and the way things appears to you, in that way they exist for you" (Theaetetus).
7. Around 1990 I was interviewing a couple prior
to performing their wedding ceremony. The woman announced that they had
been living together for a couple of years. Upon reflection I was startled
by two facts: how casually she told me this and how casually I received
it. I could not imagine this disclosure being made in these circumstances
in this relaxed manner to a Baptist minister in 1950. The change had not
come about because the churches had done an about face on the issue of
fornication. Rather changes in cultural attitudes and practices had brought
about an accommodation in the churches, often not publically acknowledged
in its official doctrines, which usually maintained the ancient insistence
on abstinence before marriage. Although some of its liberal theologians
had taken a more permissive stance in books and seminary classes, the acceptance
of what previously had been regarded as sinful was not indicative of the
influence of liberal church intellectuals on the mass of believers but
rather the result of changes in the culture of which church members were
a significant part.