Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ethics 2: Absolutes and Relatives

I am not done with this, but such as I have give I thee...
11.2 Absolutes and Relatives
We learned in the previous section that one approach to ethics is called "duty based ethics." Duty based ethics focuses on actions that are intrinsically right or wrong. For example, most cultures consider lying or stealing to those closest to you to be wrong in itself. Even if it would be to your own personal advantage, most consider it wrong to act in this way.

At the same time, most cultures consider it good to help those closest to you when they are in need. The word duty might seem inappropriate for such things, since we often want to act in this way and, indeed, it is hopefully a pleasure for us to act lovingly toward those close to us. Nevertheless, in philosophy we can call such behavior "duties" because we believe it would be morally wrong for us to do otherwise.

The bigger philosophical question is why these are duties. Is it simply a matter of culture? Is it only that our culture finds it abhorrent to steal from your parents or harm someone who has nurtured and protected you? Or is there something that makes values like these universal or even exceptionless absolutes?

Some philosophers have argued that core rights and wrongs are absolutes. An absolute right or wrong is one that is always right or wrong without exception. Many Christians use language of absolutes in an imprecise way. We often find people calling something an absolute when they really mean that something is definitely right or wrong.

[textbox: absolutes]

But if you can think of an exceptional situation to some principle or action, then by definition it is not an absolute. For example, many Christians are opposed to abortion, except in the case or rape or when the life of the mother is in danger. By definition, therefore, these Christians are not "absolutist" when it comes to the issue of abortion. [1] Similarly, when Jesus made exceptions to the fourth commandment on keeping the Sabbath, he showed that he was not an absolutist in relation to that command. [2]

[Note 1: An absolutist might argue that simply removing the unborn from the womb to save the life of the mother is not an abortion if one does not actively kill the unborn but removes it to save the mother's life.]

[Note 2: As we will see below, Paul in the New Testament is actually best classifed as a "relativist" when it comes to the Old Testament Sabbath law, because he does not consider the Sabbath law binding on all people in all times and all places.]

Several famous philosophers have been absolutist. For example, the philosopher Plato believed that if something was morally right or wrong, then one must always either do or not do it. The most famous illustration of Plato's ethic is the story of Gyges' ring (**).

Gyges was a shepherd* who found a ring that could make him invisible. So he placed himself among certain delegates to the king and then proceeded to have an affair with the king's wife, who then with him plotted and killed the king. The question that Plato poses in this story is whether or not a person should do the right thing even when you will not get caught.

Plato's answer is that you should. His reasoning is that a person is only happy when their whole person is healthy and each part of you--your soul and your body--is doing what it is supposed to do. Plato thus did not believe that a person like Gyges would be truly happy. They might not have any physical consequences for such actions, but they would not be healthy in their souls for doing them.

[Note 3: Plato's ethic flowed naturally from his sense that behind the shadowy world we see around us with our senses is a more real world of ideas we can access with our minds. This world of ideas is unchanging and is thus a realm of absolute truth. Accordingly, our actions should line up without exception to these truths.]

The best known absolutist of all was Immanuel Kant. You might remember from chapter 4 that Kant believed we had certain built-in categories of thinking in our minds that help us process the content of our senses. He believed that this "reasoning software" also could help us determine right and wrong.

David Hume, you might also remember, saw no clear connection between facts (things that happen in the world) and values (the moral values we assign to those events). Kant's built-in categories were his attempt to deal with Hume. Kant acknowledged that we have no basis in our experiences for saying things that happen are right or wrong. We can simply say some things bring us more or less pleasure, more or less pain. But if it gives someone pleasure to cause someone else pain, we have no experiential basis for saying the inflictor should not gain personal pleasure in that way. [Note 4]

[Note 4: This is my extension of Hume's point. Hume's ethical dilemma is called the fact-value problem.]

Kant's "mind software" is his solution to Hume's problem. In our minds we can reason to universal law, to what is "categorically" necessary for us to do or not do. This is Kant's categorical imperative. An imperative is a command, something that you must do, that is your duty to do or not to do. The word categorical means that these imperatives are absolute, without exception. For Kant, if something is right or wrong, then it is always and without exception right or wrong. It is "categorically" right or wrong.

Kant's attempt to put his categorical imperative into words proved to be a struggle over the years. His best known formulation went like this:

"Act only on that maxim that, at the same time, you will to be a universal law."*

This wording might seem a little vague, but this is Kant's way of saying what we have already said. A "maxim," an ethical statement, is only truly an imperative when it is always and everywhere an imperative. In other words, if something is right or wrong, then it will always be right or wrong.

[textbox: categorical imperative, "ends justify the means," "end-in-itself"]

Countless ethicists have rightly raised questions about such a sweeping sense of ethical absolutism, and they did in Kant's day as well. He made more than one attempt to clarify what he meant. For example, at one point he said that his categorical imperative amounted to treating people as "ends in themselves."

If something is a "means to an end," it is simply a stop on a journey to somewhere else. For example, nurses have to study chemistry at some point in their education. But the study of chemistry for them is not an "end in itself," just because it is a great subject where you get to mix things together. They study chemistry in hope that it will make them better nurses later, that they will have some background context for understanding how one aspect of the human body works. Studying chemistry is thus a "means to an end."

What is problematic in ethics is when people believe that "the end justifies the means" in any subject. A person who believes that the end justifies the means believes that if the goal is good, then it doesn't matter what path you take to get to that goal. For example, World War 2 probably ended earlier than it would have because we dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshema and Nagasaki. One might argue that fewer people died by dropping the bomb than if we had not.

But did, in this case, the "end" (the goal of ending the war) justify the "means" (killing two cities filled with men, women, and children who were simply going about their daily business and not actively fighting the United States). It is a matter of debate. Are those uninvolved in active fighting in a war "guilty" because they are associated with the enemy?

When Kant said that people are ends-in-themselves, he implied that you cannot harm or do wrong to a person as a means to achieve some other end. And he suggested that this principle is basically what his categorical imperative was about. But is it, really? If anything, Kant's absolutism, because it does not allow for exceptions, seems to make "rules" far more important than people.

For example, let's say that you lived in Holland during World War 2 and were hiding Jews in your apartment. Then let's say that some Nazi soldiers come to your door and ask if you are aware of any Jews hiding on your block. Kant's categorical imperative would seem to say that, if it is wrong to lie, then it is always wrong to lie under any circumstances.

Now some believe that this is the case. However, it is difficult to see how following this maxim categorically makes people an end-in-themselves. If you tell the truth, "Yes, I know of Jews hiding on this block," you will likely find that the end is coming for both you and the Jews hiding in your apartment. In short, Kant's ethic seems to make the maxim the end in itself rather than people.

In another attempt to clarify his categorical imperative, Kant said that it amounted to the Golden Rule: "Do to others what you would have them do to you." [Note 5] But again, it is hard to see that this is anything like an accurate representation of Kant's ethic. If I were a Jew hiding from Nazis, I might be quite happy for you to lie to the Nazis at your door about my whereabouts, as well as to do the same for you.

[Note 5: A form of the Golden Rule appears Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7*]

In the end, we wonder whether it is far more virtuous to consider the majority of ethical maxims as universally true, but with possible exceptions. Certainly the two great ethical commands are exceptionless absolutes: love God and love neighbor. It is difficult to imagine any situation where the right thing to do would be not to act in a manner consistent with love of God or love of neighbor. But it would seem that the norm we find in the Bible, as well as in Christian history, is to treat ethical norms as universal and timeless, yes, but not exceptionless and, thus, not as absolutes.

The topic of lying is a good case study. Most Christians would be very comfortable with the idea that it is wrong to lie no matter when you have lived in history or where you have lived. However, we can seriously question whether this ethical maxim is an absolute, that is, whether it is an imperative to which we should never under any circumstances make an exception.

Certainly the Bible does not treat this ethic as exceptionless. You might remember the logical fallacy from chapter 3 called "circular reasoning." Circular reasoning is where you assume your conclusion in your argument. Some arguments that treat biblical teaching as exceptionless commit this fallacy.

"How do you know that it is always wrong to lie without exception?"

"Because the ninth commandment says, 'Thou shalt not bear false witness.'" [Note 6]

[Here I am using the most prevalent Protestant number of the Ten Commandments. Lutherans and Roman Catholics number the commandments slightly differently. as do Jews]

We will leave aside the fact that this commandment was originally about perjury rather than lying in general. [Note 7] Nevertheless, this answer does not address the issue at all. The question we are asking is whether these commandments were meant to be absolutes. The commandment itself says nothing about this question, about whether there would be exceptional situations where God would want you to bear false witness.

[Note 7: Discussion of the Ten Commandments frequently generalizes these commandments in ways that rip them from their original meaning. For example, the third commandment not to take the name of the LORD in vain was originally about keeping oaths that one had made by swearing by YHWH, the name of God]

One must be careful not to assume that because a biblical narrative tells about a biblical hero doing something, God or Scripture as a whole therefore endorses that action. Such is the case with biblical cases of lying. For example, the book of Joshua seems to look favorably on the prostitute Rahab because she lied to protect the Israelite spies at Jericho (Josh. 6:25). Old Testament stories like this one must be read in the light of all Scripture and not simply applied straightforwardly to today, but here we have an instance where the biblical text seems to consider it better to lie than not to. [Note 8]

[Note 8: Interestingly, some very early copies of John 7:8 have Jesus tell his brothers that he is not going to the feast in Jerusalem, after which he then goes secretly. ]

The point here is not to commend lying. Almost all Christians would surely agree that truthtelling is a universal value that applies in all times and all places. What we are suggesting is that this ethic is a good candidate for a maxim that is universally valid but not exceptionless. Lying is universally wrong, but not an absolute in situations where a higher value conflicts with it, such as when a life is at stake.

So many use the word "absolute" in reference to values that they more accurately consider universal rights and wrongs that might have rare exceptions. We would argue that it is at this level that many biblical commands take place. Paul's letters, for example, did not take the form of legal documents where his ethical charges are always written in a way so that there would not be any situations where we might make an exception.

Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 6 that it is a shame for Christians to take other Christians to a secular Roman court and that it would be better to lose out than to do so. But did he mean this as a timeless absolute, to where there would never in any situation in any of history be a time or a place where a Christian might appropriately take another Christian to court. It seems doubtful that he intended his words to have that sort of scope. We will have to debate with each other whether God wants them to have--Paul himself did not know we would be reading these words 2000 years later in a vastly different time and place.

We might offer a final biblical example just to show that there are clear issues where the Christian ethical position is universal in scope, but not exceptionless. One New Testament imperative is to "be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1, TNIV). At the same time, we find Peter and John deliberately disobeying the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, saying, "Which is right in God's eyes: to listen to you, or to him?" (Acts 4:19).

These two passages are easily fit together from a Christian perspective. It is universally a Christian principle to obey those in authority over you, unless that authority commands you to do something that ranks higher as a Christian value. So if the conflict is between obeying God and obeying the higher authority, you should obey God.

[textbox: universal rights and wrongs, nihilism]

We find similar misconceptions on a popular level about what ethical relativism is. For example, people commonly define relativism as not believing in any right or wrong. But that is actually a philosophy called moral nihilism. A relativist does believe in right and wrong. They simply believe that it is relative to either the person or the culture. [Note 9]

[Note 9: a person who believes in universal rights and wrongs, but who believes there may be exceptional situations is not a relativist. The position we presented above with regard to lying, for example, is not a relativist position because it believes that lying is wrong in all times and places. It simply argues that there are exceptional cases.]

It is important to recognize that everyone is relativist on some issues, just as everyone makes exceptions on some issues (even Kant, no doubt). Christians are absolutist on the two love commands, and they have a universal ethic on many other issues. But we will surely find other issues on which each individual Christian must form his or her own convictions, his or her own sense of what God requires of them as an individual.

A "relative" in this context is a position that you affirm as definitely right or wrong for you but not necessarily for someone else. We can identify two levels. Cultural relativism is the view that right or wrong is defined by particular cultures. Personal relativism is the view that right or wrong is a matter of individuals.

[textbox: personal and cultural relativism]

When Christians oppose relativism, they are usually opposing the idea that all right and wrong is a matter of culture or the individual. Obviously such a wholesale relativist position is not in keeping with historic Christianity. The Greek historian and the Sophists that Socrates debated were such cultural relativists. And many cultural anthropologists today, because they are aware of the great diversity that exists among cultures today, often lean in that direction.

Herodotus tells a story about the Persian king inquiring of some Greeks and some from a group called the Callatians what they did with their dead parents. The Greeks informed the king that they burned them on a funeral pyre, something like what is done to Darth Vader's body in the Star Wars saga. The Callatians were appalled. When the Persian king then inquired of them how they disposed of their dead parents, they responded that they ate them.

The conclusion that Herodotus reaches at the end of this tale is that "Custom is king over all." In short, what a person believes is right or wrong is simply a matter of where that person is from and what the customs of that place are. In fact, the Greek word that is usually translated "law" in the New Testament, also had the meaning of "custom" in secular Greek culture.

Although we commonly hear people talk about some universal sense of right and wrong that all people have built into them, the list of common ethical customs among the peoples of the world is really not that long. Almost all cultures have customs about how to treat your children and parents, as well as about incest. It is generally considered wrong to murder an innocent person within your particular group or family.

But beyond this short list, we find immense ethical diversity. For example, it used to be the practice of Eskimo culture either to bring about the death of your parents once they became a burden to a very sparse food supply. The ancient Spartans and the Dobu tribe today encourage stealing among their own group to develop survival skills. Polygamy is considered fully acceptable in much of Africa.

Wealthy Egyptians used to have the wives and pets buried with the dead husband, killed so that they could be with him in the afterlife. Until recent times, those of India would burn the wife of a man who died on the same funeral pyre as him, the practice of suttee. In Japan until recent times, a wife who was even accused of infidelty was expected to commit suicide to save her husband from the shame of the accusation.

Even in the Bible we find instruction that most Christians would consider relative to the times and places of the Bible, but not applicable to us today. For example, we find the practice of levirate marriage in the Old Testament (e.g., Deut. 25:5-6). If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, the brother that survives is to marry the wife of his dead brother to raise up seed for his brother. Since polygamy was fully allowed at this time in Israel (e.g., Deut. 21:15-17), we should probably imagine the brother adding her as a wife rather than taking her on as his first wife.

In the New Testament, we similarly find Paul probably telling the women of the Corinthian congregation to wear a hair veil in public worship when they are praying or prophesying (1 Cor. 11:5). Part of the reason is perhaps so that they show proper respect for their husbands in the presence of other males, not least putative "males" such as angels (11:10) and God "him"self (11:13). [Note 10] Some groups do follow practices today such as wearing prayer bonnets or putting their (uncut) hair up in a bun. But it is questionable whether these practices function the same way veiling did at Corinth. In short, most Christian women by their very practices imply that they take 1 Corinthians 11 as teaching relative to ancient Mediterranean culture.

[Note 10: God is of course not literally male, for literal maleness requires male sexual organs, which of course God does not have. God has no body; therefore, male language in reference to Him is by definition metaphorical.]

Interestingly, it is possible to interpret the New Testament to have a relativist approach to the fourth of the Ten Commandments, to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Christians over the centuries have reconceptualized the Sabbath law in terms of Sunday and have generalized it to mean setting aside a day of worship to God. But of course the original meaning of this commandment had to do with Israelites not working on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Paul's writings, however, do not consider this Sabbath legislation binding on non-Jewish Christians (Rom. 14; Col. 2). If Paul considered it still binding on Jews, but not on non-Jews, then he by definition considered obedience to the fourth commandment relative to one's ethnicity.

Are there some issues on which Christians are appropriately relativist today? It would seem likely. For example, Arab Christian women in the Middle East should probably cover more of their bodies in their cultural context than North American women would need to in order to be modest. [Note 11] Similarly, it seems likely that North American Christian women should cover more of their bodies than Christian women from parts of New Guinea or Africa. Few missionaries return from these parts of the world without reaching these sorts of conclusions.

[Note 11: It is deeply ironic that so many American Christians equate in their mind Israel with Christian and Arab or Palestinian with non-Christian. As a point of fact, there are far more Arab and Palestinian Christians than there are Jewish Christians living in the Middle East.]

Many Christians also have "personal convictions" that they do not consider binding on other Christians. In other words, they believe that something is right or wrong for them as a Christian individual but not necessarily for other Christians. For example, many Christians believe that it would be wrong for them to drink any form of alcohol. At the same time, many of these same believers would affirm that there are other Christians who drink moderately and are no less spiritual for doing so.

These are instances of personal relativism, where a person considers something right or wrong on an individual basis. The real debate points over ethics for Christians, however, are often over when an issue is appropriately relative and when it is universal. For example, many Christians would not consider abortion to be an appropriate issue on which to be relativist. In other words, they would not believe that this issue is a matter of personal conviction but rather of universal scope.

So we find that Christian ethics are not as simple as simply absolutism versus relativism. There are issues on which Christians will be absolutists. And there are issues where Christians will be relativists. One cannot simply dismiss a perspective by labeling it as relativist, and one does not prove a perspective as Christian by labeling it as absolutist. There will be issues where an absolutist perspective is not Christian, and there will be issues where a relativist perspective is God's perspective.

We thus have to discuss and debate whether a right or wrong is an absolute, a universal, or a relative on the merits of each topic, and labeling an issue such says nothing about whether it is right or wrong.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think the universality of human rights that was argued recently by the Center for Inquiry before the U.N. is something every American would want to see be affirmed. Unfortunately, cultural relativity is winning out as far as Islam law is concerned. The ironic thing is that the universal human rights is undermined by an absolutist Sharia law...because Shaira law is intolerant to the individuals under its "reign". Whenever there is a collectivity, there is bound to be tyranny, because the individual's conscience is where the categories are..and in collective societies, the individual ceases to count because of the "common good" or "God's will".

I find it interesting that I read where the Hebrew word for law is custom. If this is so, then, just as I'd understood when I first came to faith is true...that the "stepfather" is the image of one "under law"...custom/tradition, etc. Those in Christ are in a place where these differences (male, female, Jew, or Greek) are irrelevant.So, the custom, or law, is not the significant point, it is faith in Christ.

It is not a matter of salvation, but a matter of human rights. The best way to advance that cause is through governmental instruments, such as diplomacy, the U.N., etc.

Banner Kidd said...

Sir, you said, "[Note 2: As we will see below, Paul in the New Testament is actually best classifed as a "relativist" when it comes to the Old Testament Sabbath law, because he does not consider the Sabbath law binding on all people in all times and all places.]"

I encourage you to take another look at what you are teaching. You malign the apostle Paul. Maybe it's because you teach the NT out of context with the Hebrew Scriptures, but Paul did not hold the relative view you accuse him of. You can't show that from the pure text of anything he says, in context with all of what he says, let alone the context of Scripture as a whole. I encourage you to look again. The Sabbath is absolutely the same as it has been from the garden and moving forward. Isaiah 56 says it is for all people who join themselves to Yahweh. The traditions of men still do what they have been for all time; the same thing that Jesus (Yeshua) came against the Pharisees for, making the commandments of God of no effect. Man has set aside the pure commandments of God, making them of no effect, in favor of pagan tradition and humanistic philosophy.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

What is the main issue, I think is what are social structures for in this post-structuralist frame today....The absolute of our dependency on social structures in regards to children, but then, we should not be dependent, we should come to a point of self-identity, where the social structures are useful for the next generation. Unhealthy social structures do much damage, whether in family, church, or societies.
The individual should be able to grow beyond their complete identification to the social structure. That does not mean that they cease to be social animals, but their needs are different.
Anthropoligists are outraged that the social structures of certain tribal societies are being destroyed because of development or "evangelization". Identification factors are culturally bound. But, we shouldn't be so bound in our cultrual identification that we can't identify with being "human". Religious traditions are sll cultural products, even Scriptures are bound within a cultural framework.
What Paul was trying to do was set the culturally bound "free", with identification to Christ. His was not an exclusivistic religion where one must seek salvation...and all that follows relgion...
Relgion is good in sofar as it gives us a transcendental realm, where there is an acknowledgment that we are not the end all of everything...that means that man's reason is limited...but it also means that man's reason is an aspect of God's image in man...

Ken Schenck said...

Banner, I do not at all mean to malign the apostle Paul by saying his position on this particular issue may be relativist. I am arguing that to be relativist on some issues is the right position, God's position, that Paul is right to take a relativist position on the issue of Sabbath observance.

I also am not in any way arguing against a Christian appropriation of the Jewish Sabbath in relation to Sunday as a day of worship. What I am pointing out--and I don't see how this conclusion is really debatable--is

1. That the New Testament never equates Sunday, the Lord's Day, with the Old Testament Sabbath. The Sabbath in the NT remains a reference to Saturday when Jews did not work.

2. That Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16ff clearly do not consider the Jewish Sabbath binding on Gentile Christians. Gentile believers are nowhere obligated in the NT to observe the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday.

Therefore, if Paul thought Jewish believers should continue to observe the Jewish Sabbath, while Gentile believers were not so obligated, then by definition his position on the Sabbath is relativist.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You had so much information in this entry, that I've been continuing to think on it...I have learned more about parenting than when we first had kids. If I thought that what I was doing at the time, was right, but now, understand that there was a better way of doing my parenting, then how can we value the absolute? Is it relative to our understanding at the time, such as Wesley thought about sin and ignorance? If lying would bring about a better good, because of what I thought would help another, then, what happens if I realize that what I'd thought was not, in effect, the best? How does anyone justify being paternalistic to another human being...Americans believe that their form of government is the best because it allow for freedom of choice for the individual..and doesn't oppress. Some believe that this is paternalistic...but how can we even gauge when we are bound within our cultural frames...?