Ramblings on Ethics, the Golden Rule, and Moral Absolutes

In this post, I would like to use as my starting-point something that Brian Morley says on page 323 of his book, Mapping Apologetics.  Morley is profiling the thoughts of Christian apologist John Warwick Montgomery, and the topic is the attempt to find some authoritative basis for ethics and morality.  Montgomery grounds ethics and morality in God and critiques philosophical proposals that ground them in something else.

Morley says:

“One of the best-known attempts to ground law in modern times was provided by John Rawls (1921-2002), who echoed Immanuel Kant’s maxim to accept as law only what we could wish everyone would do (which Montgomery finds too vague; someone, such as a sadomasochist, might wish everyone behaved the way he does).”

Here are some thoughts:

1.  The reason that this passage stood out to me is that it reminded me of a conversation that I had several years ago.  I heard a lecture from a liberal New Testament professor, and this professor said that a critique could be made of the Golden Rule: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12 KJV).  The professor said, “Suppose that a person is a sadomasochist?  In that case, doing to others what he wants others to do to him would not help others.”

I told this to a fellow student and colleague who was an evangelical, and he thought that was absurd.  “If someone made that point at the school that I attended before coming here, people would have laughed it off as stupid.  But a professor makes that point here, and it’s considered profound.  Of course Jesus didn’t have in mind a sadomasochist!”

It was interesting to me, therefore, to read a Christian apologist making a similar point to what that professor said, only the apologist was critiquing Rawls and Kant, not the Golden Rule.

Item 1 here will actually be a starting-point for many of the following items.

2.  Sometimes, a point can be good, but it falls flat because it is not made elegantly.  I remember having a discussion at a church that I attended several years ago.  We were talking about whether God has free will—-is God so righteous in God’s nature that God is unable to do wrong, and thus lacks free will?  The people in the discussion were agreeing that human beings have free will.  “Can God give what God does not have?”, somebody asked.  The pastor thought that was a profound question.  I, too, thought that it was a good question, but I could think of examples of God giving things that God himself did not possess, or that were not characteristic of God himself.  I raised the point that God gave a tree bark, yet God himself does not have bark, and thus God can give what God does not have.  People did not take that point seriously and probably thought that it was silly.  I still think that I was making a valid point, but I will admit that perhaps I did not package it that well.  I am not sure how I could have packaged it instead so it would not have fallen flat.  Perhaps I could have firmly reiterated my point: “My point is that there are plenty of examples of God giving people what God does not have, what is not characteristic of God himself.”

3.  In reading Morley’s book, Morley talks about some issues that a number of people may consider to be silly.  On page 121, Morley is talking about the thoughts of Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga, and he says in a footnote: “In an autobiographical chapter, Plantinga notes, amusingly, that when his wife heard his thesis that belief in God and belief in other minds are ‘in the same epistemological boat,’ she thought it ‘was one of the sillier things she had heard.’…But in the field of religious epistemology, it was taken quite seriously.”

Just to give you a little background information without going too much on a tangent, Plantinga was saying that we are as justified to believe in God as we are justified to believe that there are other people with other minds—-that we are not alone.  We cannot disprove that our brains are in a vat and the outside world is an illusion, yet we go through life assuming that the outside world is real.  Similarly, for Plantinga, one can be justified in believing in God.  This whole “brain in a vat” deal may sound absurd to a lot of people, but it has actually been taken seriously throughout the course of centuries of philosophy: Can we know that the world outside of us is real?

I think of another thinker Morley discusses, even though Morley does not devote an entire chapter to him.  His name is Edmund Gettier. Gettier was afraid that he had not published enough to get tenure, then he went on to make a significant contribution to epistemology.  My understanding of his contribution is that he was asking this: Suppose a person securely believes something that is true, but for a wrong reason?  Does that count as actual knowledge?  (See here for more information.)  To a lot of people, that may not sound particularly profound, important, or practical; it may sound to them like nitpicking; they may equate it with talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or asking if God can make a stone so big and heavy that God cannot lift it.  But, to a philosophical academic community that is inquiring whether there is a secure foundation for knowledge, Gettier’s question is important.

4.  It is possible to play “devil’s advocate” to death, to ask so many questions and thereby to get rid of any foundations on which one can build, which is not particularly edifying.  I remember a student who had this sort of frustration with a class that he was taking.  Eventually, students can get so annoyed with someone asking, “What about this?” and “What about this?”, that they tune the annoying student out.  But suppose the class itself is promoting destabilization?  A student who believes there are answers may be looking to a professor to provide solid answers, or to reinforce the answers that the student already believes, or at least not to argue that there is no meaning in the universe and to offer some reliable foundation that goes somewhere productive, and the student walks away disappointed.

5.  Back to the student I mention in Item 1, yeah, bringing up sadomasochism in discussing the Golden Rule may sound silly.  But to a person seeking to articulate or to find an air-tight foundation for moral values that covers as many bases as possible, such a critique of the Golden Rule, Kant, and Rawls may not sound so silly.  Still, I can identify with what that student was saying.  Jesus did not have sadomasochism in mind when he articulated the Golden Rule.  Jesus was assuming that people desire their own well-being, and that his audience shared that assumption.  I am for treating the words of Jesus charitably, and I would not say that the question of “What about sadomasochists?” totally destroys the Golden Rule as a valid ethical norm for life, generally speaking.  Still, even putting aside sadomasochism, there are people who are not sadomasochists yet desire things for themselves that are not particularly good or healthy—-drugs, illicit sex, etc.  The Golden Rule may be a generally good rule, but it needs qualifications and footnotes, and cannot by itself serve as an exhaustive criterion for ethics.  That could be why the Bible does not just have the Golden Rule; it also presents examples and commands of doing good to others, and avoiding the doing of harm to others.

6.  Montgomery finds a lot of attempts to define or ground ethics apart from God to be inadequate or unrealistic.  Saying that we should seek the greatest good for the greatest number (utilitarianism) or natural law, for Montgomery, does not adequately specify what is right and what is wrong.  Rawls’ view that people in designing a society should ask what it would be like for them to be the vulnerable ones and thereby construct a fair society is, for Montgomery, rather unrealistic, for people probably will not do that.  I have two responses to that.  First of all, while Montgomery does well to critique proposals that have been made in attempts to define or provide a foundation for morality, I do not agree with him that his own Christian model is air-tight and problem-free, especially since the Bible contains things (i.e., slavery) that understandably trouble a lot of people, from an ethical standpoint.  (I have not read Montgomery himself, however, but only Morley’s chapter about his thought, so perhaps Montgomery does interact with this issue, or there is more to his thought than I think.)  Second, regarding Montgomery’s critique of Rawls, sure, people may not follow what Rawls suggests.  That does not invalidate what Rawls is saying.  Montgomery admits that there are Christians who do not follow Christian ethics, yet Montgomery does not believe that invalidates Christian ethics, or nullifies them as a sufficient criterion for how to live.

7.  I have wrestled with the question of moral absolutes before.  Can we safely say that there are moral absolutes, when there are different cultures with different values, and when people in the past did not see things as many see them now?  I believe that there are moral absolutes—-which is not to say that I do not recognize situational ethics in certain cases, but rather that I believe that deliberately trying to harm another person is wrong.  In saying that we have grown from where we have been, or that one culture may be morally advanced above another culture in areas (and vice versa), I obviously do have a standard of what counts as right and advanced, so I am not a complete relativist (though I also back away from imperialism as a solution).  In some cases, moral advancement can be based on advancement in knowledge: a society may learn the value of treating people well, or realize that people it once stereotyped as inferiors are actually not inferiors.  Is this a sufficient foundation for morality?  Probably not.  It is still where I am on moral absolutes.

UPDATE: This is not my official review, but I should probably mention that I received this book as a complimentary review copy from Intervarsity Press, in exchange for an honest review.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Ramblings on Ethics, the Golden Rule, and Moral Absolutes

  1. Pingback: Book Write-Up: Mapping Apologetics, by Brian K. Morley | James' Ramblings

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