Saturday, November 14, 2009

Responding to ethics.

This is sort of about two things that I've been pursuing the last few days.

This morning I read part of a thread on Reddit reminding us of the common place claim on the part of theists that non-theists cannot account for ethics or morality in either their origins nor their content. The leading comment thread at the time disrupts this accusation by pointing out both that it is not the purpose of non-theism to define ethics either historically or structurally, and that a theistic construction of ethics does not itself serve as a defense of theism. Put slightly differently, the validity of a belief in a higher power does not validate the subsequent claims to moral truth, nor does the truth or falsity of a moral claim retroactively validate a belief in a higher power. To claim that God must exist or else we are lost to moral relativism is a sad reflection indeed upon the strength of one's faith, and rather oddly subordinates belief to pragmatics, in a way that one might suppose most theists ought to find repulsive. It seems, contrary to the theistic argument, that if faith indeed is the virtue in question then the question of ethics itself ought not to arise until after the question of God's existence has been resolved; to point to ethics as a reason for belief is to rather greatly discount belief itself, and ought to be regarded more properly as cynical, in the spirit of Pascal's Wager.

This says nothing whatever of the claim itself that religion (and implicitly this is Christianity, at least here in the US), and more specifically God, is the origin of ethics. Now let us even be so bold now to leave aside the fact that any sophisticated and compassionate European/American theory of ethics is inevitably supported by a rich history of writers whose argumentation self-consciously avoids specific recourse to an originary text (read: The Bible). Too, we shall leave behind the question of whether or not these men and women were theists, and whether or not there was even the possibility for them, culturally, of being avowedly non-theistic and heard at the same time. We can instead explore the possibility of deriving ethics from The Bible.

(Now this is a tired point by now, done to sleep if not death, so I will be brief.) Presuming for a moment that The Bible is the (adultered or not) word of God, we are immediately faced with the question of how to resolve a seemingly impossible and lengthy set of contradictions, and not of the merely factual or historical sort, but of the sort pertaining directly to ethics. The often bizarre dictates of Leviticus seem at odds with the terse list of generally pragmatic rules put forth in Exodus, though these, along with Numbers, etc., are superseded when Jesus tells us to put aside complex rules and merely love others as we love ourselves. Why then the earlier books? If God wrote the Book, why put in a passage that tells us not to listen to much of it?

Kierkegaard gives us a troubling answer, and this leads me to the second thing on my mind. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard closely reads the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain, and at the last second rescinds the order. Kierkegaard remarks, as many others have, that if we ever found a modern-day Abraham, he would at best be shunned from decent society, and more than likely would face charges. His conduct, in short, is unethical.

But K. won't leave this alone; there is something else going on here, and it goes by the name of Faith. Derrida, reading Kierkegaard (in The Gift of Death) points to silence, reminding us that Abraham told no one what he was about, or what God had told him (it is a little unclear in Derrida's text which points are his and which K.'s, and it's been too long since I read Fear and Trembling to sort out the different points, so I'm going to allow these authors to drift together). Abraham's silence (K.'s pseudonym for F+T was Johannes de Silencio) is an indication of the conflicts of two different sorts of responsibility: to the universal and to the absolute.

In Hegelian (and Kantian) ethics, the ethical is determined by one's responsibility to the universal (in Kant this manifests as the categorical imperative): one submits one's actions to the universal collection of humanity for judgement, and when one's choices are disclosed, we, collectively, can see if they are ethical. Further, we can judge their ethicality by determining whether or not the agent behaved responsibly with respect to the universal. Responsibility is meant in all its senses. In order to be responsible, to respond, to the universal, Hegel argues that we must practice full disclosure. Secrecy is anathema to responsibility, and thus to ethics.

And yet Abraham is silent. This is due to the difference between the universal and the absolute. Abraham's responsibility is not to the universal--he is not behaving how he would have everyone act, nor in a way that is "universally intelligible"--his responsibility is to the Absolute, to the divine. And while responsibility to the universal requires full disclosure, responsibility to the absolute precludes it. The absolute is unrepresentable, which places it outside the reach of language. To speak one's responsibility to the absolute is to make it universal (see, for example, Hegel's preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, as well as Adorno's "Sacred Fragment"). As such, in order to be responsible to the absolute, one cannot be responsible to the universal. In other words, acts of faith, religious acts, are a priori unethical, in the strict sense. For Kiekegaard this amounts to a new category; Abraham was unethical, but not wrong, because his faith superseded the ethical.

Now for a non-theist it is tempting to leave this here. The story of Abraham, for those of us with no faith in God's existence, is rather abhorrent, and a chilling reminder of the length's to which faith can drive people. And if faith is seen as a choice, then Kiekegaard's reasoning would point us rather clearly away from theism. I can say with conviction, however, that my non-theism is not deliberate or optional; I do not believe, and have the option of owning that fact or lying to myself about it. Others do believe, and presumably they are being honest when saying so.

The sticking point is this: if faith is not optional, but if religious behavior (responsibility to the absolute) is unethical, what is the proper stance with relation to theistic behavior? In some senses, this is clear; where religion leads one to oppose gay rights, safe sex practices, and the right to abortion (etc.) its actions must be opposed--the ethical question with respect to these religious organizations is secondary at best; stopping them is the first priority. But in all cases, the question of whether or not those who behave in accordance to a non-optional faith in the divine can properly be said to be wrong is complicated. For Kiekegaard, this is clear (he was a theist): the religious supersedes the ethical. For the non-theist, unethical religious behavior is symptomatic of a non-optional condition of faith, but while the actions themselves may or may not be condemned as unethical, the source of the decision lays outside the realm of choice, and cannot then be the object of ethical judgement: one is not responsible for one's faith, since faith is not a response.

I do not mean this as an apologia for what problems faith has wrought, but more of an exploration of some of the problems of the intersection of faith and ethics, and primarily as an illumination of why it is absurd and unsound for theism to make claims to ethics, particularly when what passes for ethics in religious discourse avoids responsibility itself--that is, responsibility to origins, responsibility to reason, etc.



Erik said...

If one is not responsible for one's faith then do we have to be more understanding of those who don't believe in evolution? Apparently they can't choose to believe in evolution in the same way a non-believer of all things supernatural can't choose to believe in that.

ThePeat said...

I'm trying to distinguish between belief and action, and in that vein, I would say that yes, we have to be tolerant (if not accepting or understanding) of those who do not believe in evolution. This is quite different from allowing ignorance to influence public policy or science education. I cannot blame Abraham for his deluded belief that he should kill his son, but I can judge him for trying to go through with it. My position is smug elitism: they are welcome to their ignorance as long as they don't hurt anyone. (I direct "ignorance" at those who deny evolution, not at those who believe in a god.)

This is all presuming that belief is beyond choice or control, which certainly may not be true. Creationism, for example, is fostered as much by active ignorance than anything else, which leads me to believe that some forms of belief are the result of deliberate choices, if not choices themselves. Theism more generally is likely more complicated than this--Kiekegaard is an example of someone who tirelessly and scrupulously examined theism and still remained theistic himself.