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Ethics in Flux

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Early in the modern era, some rational theologians seemed sure that they could justify belief in the main tenets of Christianity on narrow rationalist premises (e.g., William Chillingworth, John Tillotson). But by the end of the century, even John Locke, the would-be rational defender of the faith, could not see his way through to justify belief in doctrines as basic to orthodoxy as the Trinity and the incarnation. 

 

Twentieth-century ethics was a time of reaping the whirlwind after the wind had been sown since the dawn of modernity. The modern era of Western thought began in the seventeenth century when some thinkers abandoned the Augustinian approach to theology as an exercise of faith seeking understanding, opting instead for a new approach that roughly amounted to reason, in a narrow sense, seeking reasons or justifications to believe. So began the quest of rational theology.

The Wind

Early in the modern era, some rational theologians seemed sure that they could justify belief in the main tenets of Christianity on narrow rationalist premises (e.g., William Chillingworth, John Tillotson). But by the end of the century, even John Locke, the would-be rational defender of the faith, could not see his way through to justify belief in doctrines as basic to orthodoxy as the Trinity and the incarnation. By the eighteenth century, some of rational theology’s unitarian (and Arian) buds had blossomed into varieties of deism across the Western world (e.g., John Toland, Anthony Collins, and Matthew Tindal in England; Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France; and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in America). Eventually, and perhaps mercifully, David Hume gave the whole rational theology project a final shove, and it collapsed.

Yet, as hope for a rational justification for Christianity as a divinely revealed religion crumbled, confidence in the existence and knowability of a rational moral order remained high. So high, in fact, that thinkers throughout the age of reason, including Baruch Spinoza, continued to look to ethics as the one aspect of biblical teaching that could command rational assent and universal consent. Some Enlightenment thinkers even thought that ethics might be able to justify theology on the basis of human reason alone.

In the broadly Augustinian structure of thought that prevailed through the medieval era, ethics followed and rested on theology. That is, our knowledge of the way humans ought to conduct themselves in the world was supposed to depend on and be determined by who God is and what He wills. Debates over many subpoints raged through the centuries, but few theologians had imagined any order other than this. Indeed, the relationship between theology and ethics was so tight that ethics was largely treated as a branch of theology by Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers alike.

That order was challenged by the new, modernist varieties of rationalism. By the time Immanuel Kant wrote near the end of the eighteenth century, the content of rational theology was largely reduced to only what rational theologians imagined must be true of God in order to maintain the moral order (and thus civilization). Kant’s contribution on this front was to state the matter openly and honestly, and to provide a creative and formidable philosophical framework to give Enlightenment thinkers a place to stand.

In Kant’s proposal, theology is driven by the demands of practical reason, which governs the way we live in the world. The idea is rather simple: In order to live a moral life, one must believe certain things. One of those things is that doing what is right will lead to personal happiness. It is evident, however, that doing our moral duty does not always lead to personal happiness in this life; it often leads to suffering. Therefore, Kant argued that we must believe that there is some sort of afterlife in which the good is rewarded with happiness. Kant said that we cannot know that this state of affairs actually exists, but we find ourselves in the peculiar position of having to believe in such a state in order to do what reason demands is our duty. What is more, Kant concluded, we must also believe that what reason requires of us is backed by divine authority and thus what God commands, just as we must also believe that God will reward those who do their duty in this life with endless happiness in the next.

The Whirlwind

In some ways, Kant’s framework completed the restructuring of ethics from the previous view that prevailed in the West; in other ways, it accelerated the unraveling of the broad moral consensus that earlier view supported. Previously, ethics was often approached as a branch of theology; after Kant, ethics has been generally approached as an autonomous discipline, as it had once been conceived of in Athens. So long as Westerners continued to think more or less like Christians on moral matters and to endorse the main contours of Christian moral thought as revealed in Scripture and summarized in the Decalogue, this seemed reasonable. But the assumption that human notions of morality were stable proved naive. Once the theological guy-wires were cut, ethics was swept up in the whirlwind.

Subsequent thinkers would propose meta­ethical principles derived from anthropology, sociology, psychology, and eventually even biology. Meanwhile, suspicious critiques of the gospel voiced in the eighteenth century (e.g., by Hermann Reimarus) were further developed and extended to Christian moral teaching by nineteenth-century thinkers such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. The particulars of their critiques varied widely, but these “masters of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur calls them, each proposed counternarratives of Christian morality that cast it as a deviant or debilitating historical development and an impediment to personal and social progress.

As harsh and unhinged from historical reality as these counternarratives sometimes were, suspicion toward Christianity is all one has left when the possibility of revealed truth is rejected. The fact that Christianity exists as a potent force in the world and has the structure and form that it does demands an explanation. But if Christian theology is not true, the reasoning runs, then Christian teaching and practice must serve some other purpose than the purpose it appears or pretends to serve. Some suspect Christianity of being a coping mechanism for despair, fear, unfulfilled desires, or suffering; others suspect it of being an instrument of oppression that allows adherents to restrain and impose their collective will on others; yet others suspect moral discourse is meaningless or that morality itself is an evolutionary illusion.

This whirlwind of suspicion cut a path through the twentieth century, one that is evident in the growing sense of crisis reflected in the literature as the increasingly desperate attempt to justify morality on nontheological grounds continued to falter and then failed. As the collapse approached, one metaethical proposal followed another in rapid succession: varieties of utilitarianism (e.g., Henry Sidgwick) gave way to a contest of sorts between realism (e.g., George Edward Moore) and emotivism (e.g., Alfred Jules Ayer), then prescriptivism (e.g., Richard Mervyn Hare), and so on. Though intriguing ideas and insights flowed from the century’s fertile philosophical minds, some theorists despaired of ever finding a nontheological justification for morality and called on their colleagues to abandon the project (e.g., Richard Rorty) while others pronounced human freedom and morality a mere mirage (e.g., Michael Ruse).

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